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Between Adon Olam and Agunot

July 31, 2013 – 11:26 am7 Comments

By Elana Sztokman

chain2When my husband, Jacob, and I first met 25 years ago picking peaches on kibbutz, we were surprised at how much we had in common. After all, I had spent my entire life in Brooklyn, New York, and he was from Melbourne, Australia – how much further apart could we be? For me, Australia meant Olivia Newton John, Crocodile Dundee and koalas, and for Jacob, the most notable American was the Lubavicher rebbe, zatza”l, such a good yeshiva boy that he was at the time. We were almost oddities to one another, which perhaps contributed to the charm of our relationship. But when one day we discovered that we knew the same tune to Adon Olam, something clicked.

It was this captivating realization, that despite an oceanic divide – pre-Internet, pre-cellphones, Youtube, Facebook, texting and all the other digital tools that today bridge cultural gaps and form a global conversation – we shared something deep and historic. The fact that we sang the same Hebrew songs, that our families served similar foods on Jewish holidays, and that our childhoods were dotted with the same transmission of meaningful moments, was enormously powerful.  We had never met. Our lives had not crossed until then. And yet, it was as if our souls had been tied together for a very long time.

I have been reflecting on this Jewish connectivity, those elements of our culture that transcend specific locations and social settings. It is in many ways what makes our heritage so beautiful and bountiful. But the same weight of eternity can also be stultifying. While an image of eternal connection helps builds meaning, the accompanying sense of unwavering commitment to an ephemeral and perhaps even fictional absolute truth can also hold us back. It can keep us hanging on to ideas or practices that are no longer helpful or healthy, hanging on out of fear rather than out of a sense of divine vision.

I have been thinking about this in particular around the issue of agunot, literally “chained women”, women locked in unwanted marriages due to the reluctance of husbands to let them go and the reluctance of rabbinic judges to apply halakhic solutions to free them. On some level, the issue of agunot is like the tune to Adom Olam. In its painful ubiquity, it inexplicably characterizes religious life around the world. Where there is an Orthodox community, we find shuls, kosher butchers, mikvehs, and agunot. It is one of the most tragic statements about religious life today. That the Orthodox community has failed to eliminate this horrific and bring an end to the needless suffering of countless women is a stain upon all of us.Somehow, it seems, we have all been hanging on to the wrong thing.

Last month, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization AT NYU CO-convened the first ever Agunah Summit, a gathering of rabbinic, academic, and community leaders from across the Jewish world to consider the legitimate use and broader application of halakhic solutions to the problem. Speakers including Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi David Bigman and Rabbi Asher Lopatin, scholars Alan Deshowitz, Gerald Blidstein, Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, Joseph Weiler and Rachel Levmore, Israeli Justice Minister Tsipi Livni, Justice (ret.) Dorit Beinisch, and many others, explored the use of systemic solutions such as halakhic annulment. Rabbi Riskin advocated passionately for greater use of these halakhic tools, and Rabbi Lopatin proposed compiling a list of 100 rabbis who would be willing to accept these solutions and to conduct marriage ceremonies for freed agunot. Over 250 communal leaders and activists filled the room, expressing a powerful support for the idea that it is time for the community to resolve this problem once and for all.  For many attendees, the Summit signaled a moment of hope, perhaps a turning point, in this story of endless suffering.

I hope the Australian Jewish community will take part in this broader movement to begin exploring and advocating for the use of systemic solutions to resolve this problem. By engaging in this process along with rabbis and leaders from  North America, Israel, and more, we can work on building a vision for a globally cohesive Jewish community, one that is committed both to the preservation of tradition and to the elimination of needless human suffering. That would be a real vision of an am kadosh, a holy people.

Caulfield Hebrew Congregation is holding an informal panel discussion on the issue of agunot on Sunday, August 4 at 8:00pm.

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  • TheSadducee says:

    Don’t know much about this – suspect it also includes men whose wives refuse a divorce?

    Nonetheless, I think once the beit din has made a ruling of get-refusal then the sanctions on the wife/husband and future children should be waived in the face of unreasonable non-compliance. Would end this issue immediately.

  • Yaron says:

    The issue of refusal is not the only one. There are two other instances that financial penalties will not solve.

    1. Disappearance (such as lost at sea etc.) which leaves a doubt whether the husband is dead or not (a large problem after the Holocaust).

    2. Insanity. A get must be given and received with the knowledge of the two parties. If the husband is not in his right mind the woman cannot be divorced.

  • Elana says:

    Dear Sadducee,

    This is a woman’s problem. The Torah gives the power of marital exit exclusively to the man. Although in the 11th century, Rabeinu Gershom added a rule that women’s volition should also be taken into account, this ruling is not as significant in the process as men’s absolute power.

    First of all, men have a legal loophole: with a signature of 100 rabbis, a man can completely sidestep the woman’s volition, an option not open to women. (And it happens a few times a year at least).

    Second of all, a man who wants to avoid the system can simply take another wife, be a bigamist within halakha, and there are no consequences. (This too happens more often than we think). A woman who simply ignores the system faces severe consequences — any life she leads will render her completely out of the community, her children mamzerim, unable to marry Jews. There are no such consequences for men.

    Finally, a man who waits to get divorced has no biological clock ticking. A woman on the other hand, while they are waiting for the man to release her, hears her biological clock ticking and ultimately abdicates all possibility of creating a life for herself.

    The tragedy involved here for women is enormous


  • Ian Grinblat says:

    While Yaron is correct regarding problems in the law, Elana focuses on the moral consequences and these fall entirely and unfairly on the wife.
    It seems to me that part of the problem lies in the legal set-up: in France, a religious marriage is an optional extra, the civil marriage is the legal requirement whereas in Australia, the religious ceremony is legally recognised and so the knowledge of potential problems is swept away in the flood of sentimental fairy floss of photos, wedding lists, caterers and dressmakers.
    Despite there being a risk of souring the moment, our Rabbis need to be forthright with young couples in explaining the problems that may arise should the marriage break down. It may even lead some Jewish couples to opt for civil marriage – but I think that is preferable to bringing Jewish law and Rabbis into disrepute.

  • Jonny Schauder says:

    Elana and Yaron I thought that if a community felt a gett was being unreasonably refused they can “beat up” the man lawfully until he acquiesces? Is that just a myth?

    Elana the law is disgusting. Was there a single Rabbi on the conferencel that was simply committed to adding a catch all law that says women can invoke a gett independently in cases of clear abusers of the law (which is most)… Easy Beth Din fix if the Rabbis show some courage.

  • TheSadducee says:

    Thanks for the replies – I always consider that the Law was made for Man, not Man for the Law – common sense needs to prevail and the rabbis need to be brave and undertake revisions of halakhah as appropriate – Rabbi Gershom was able to do it, why not now?

  • Yaron says:

    There are solutions that exist prior to the wedding, essentially signing a document that your intent when marrying was on condition that the wife (or husband) will never be stuck due to any of these situations.

    Therefore should the husband be lost at sea, or one of the parties refuse the get, the marriage would be dissolved as if it never happened.

    This is not universally accepted, for various reasons.

    This also leaves the problem of people who are currently in marriages without such a document.

    This is NOT the document that is currently used by the RCV. That is a document that works within the legal system of Australia, but fails to address any of these real and serious problems.

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