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A Jewish Marriage: Proceed with Caution

January 19, 2014 – 11:18 am17 Comments

By Dr Melanie Landau:

gett2A few months ago in Melbourne, I told a leading Jewish educator about my research in Jewish marriage. He asked me, tongue in cheek, “Are you ‘for’ or ‘against’?” “Proceed with caution!”  I responded. And I wasn’t joking.

The agunah is a symptom of the unequal legal relationship that is kiddushin- traditional Jewish marriage. Any discussion of agunot is lacking if it doesn’t address the non-reciprocal legal relationship created by kiddushin. It goes without saying that no woman should be stranded as an agunah, and rabbis and communities and couples should do all in their power to avoid or overcome such a problem. But even when there are no more agunot, b’sd (with God’s help), there will still be a problem with the non-reciprocity of kiddushin and the acquisition of the woman by the man.

On June 12, 2013, the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar Ilan University held a conference about the relationship between acquisition and marriage.

Many Modern Orthodox rabbis still deny the legal implications of Jewish marriage and solely emphasize its holiness and beauty. However, as women are getting more educated halakhically, the legal implications of marriage are not being lost on them. Orthodox Israeli women are grappling with the nature of Jewish marriage:

“The status of a human as an acquisition, that is surely not acceptable to me, and the fact that it’s not mutual, that the man acquires the woman..and of course all the problems that come after- that a woman can’t divorce, and that if she is unfaithful her children are ‘mamzerim’. This is terroristic rule of women’s sexuality that is not applied to men. I don’t think it is healthy at all for a couple to live with the awareness of power relations such as these.”

(quoted in Koren, You are Hereby Renewed Unto Me: Gender, Religion and Power Relations in the Jewish Wedding Ritual,Magnes Press 2011, p110)

“I find kiddushin humiliating. The kiddushin itself humiliates me. It humiliates me in a deep way and represents everything I oppose in my whole being. And what was so hard for me- I can cry just thinking about it- that here I am, at the moment that would be so important to me going to stand in a public way in front of everyone who I love and who is important to me, and I am going to allow halakha to relate to me in a way that I think is forbidden for anyone to relate to a woman ever!” Shlomit

(Ibid, p111)                                                     

(my translations)

Many, if not, most women would not agree to such a relationship if they knew what it entailed. Other women who do know what it entails, are still going on with it for a range of complex and difficult reasons not within the scope of this blog. However, since marriage requires women’s consent, women could potentially exercise agency by refusing to consent to relationships that severely undermine their rights.

My recently published book Tradition and Equality in Jewish Marriage: Beyond the Sanctification of Subordination explores two alternative forms of marriage in the Jewish tradition. The first model, Conditional marriage partially avoids the non-reciprocity of traditional marriage. Although the woman is still ‘acquired’, the marriage is retroactively nullified if the husband exercises his non-reciprocal powers and refuses to give the wife a divorce.

The second model, ‘Derekh kiddushin’ (The Way of Marriage) also has talmudic precedent (although applied in a different situation in the Talmud) and refers to an exclusive relationship that is mutually contracted. Rabbi Meir Simcha Feldblum reintroduced this model of partnership in his article (in Hebrew): ‘The Problem of Agunot (stranded women) and Mamzerim (children born of a mother who is married to someone other than the father): A suggested overall and general solution.’

At a time of potential union with a beloved, and connection with the Divine, no woman should have to participate in something that is at odds with her deepest values and commitments.

I have a deep conviction about the full spiritual and material potential of women and the importance of the correct conditions so that they can be supported to take their rightful place in family, community and society. And may the love and honor of Torah and of the Divine be thus multiplied.

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