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Y.L. Gordon's poem "Kotzo shel Yod" is no longer taught in schools. Indeed, all the literature of the Haskala ("enlightenment") movement has been erased from the curriculum as if it never existed. Once, every boy and girl knew how to recite the following lines:

Jewish woman, who knows your life? / You come in the darkness and never see the light, / Your woes and your joys, your hopes and desires, / Are born within you and you die unfulfilled; / Daughters of other people and tribes / Enjoy some pleasure and comfort in this life / But the fate of the Jewess is eternal servitude.

(Translated by Michael Stanislawski, Oxford University Press, 1988)

Before the coffins of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev arrived in Israel - before it had been definitively ascertained that they were indeed dead - the threat of aginut (being a "chained woman," who, under Jewish law, cannot remarry because her husband may still be alive) hovered over Karnit Goldwasser. As a result, charitable souls urged the army's chief rabbi to declare the two dead, so that Karnit would not remain an aguna. After all, being a widow is better than being an aguna. Indeed, an aguna's situation is even worse than that of a mesurevet get (someone whose husband refuses to divorce her), as a mesurevet get's husband can be forced to divorce her.

But the fate of a widow who has not yet had a child is also less than wonderful. If her dead husband had a brother, even a very young brother, she must either marry the brother (known as yibum) or undergo halitza (a ceremony to release her from this obligation). Only then will she be free.

Is all this suffering and humiliation really necessary? Is civil marriage and divorce really the only way to release a woman from perpetual aginut, yibum and halitza?

In his article "The ball is in the secular public's court" (Haaretz, July 24), Yair Sheleg wrote: "Willingness to accept coalitions where the Haredim ... demand a veto right that promotes a stringent halakhic approach is what harms farmers, converts and women denied a get," or bill of divorce. Sheleg is right. If the secular parties - Labor, Likud, Kadima and the rest - jointly set boundaries and agreed that none would pay any more bribes to the ultra-Orthodox parties in exchange for political support, the harm to education, agriculture and women would stop.

But there is also another way. Historian Rabbi Simcha Assaf, who served as a justice on Israel's first Supreme Court, published two examples of a "conditional get" - one from Egypt and one from Turkey - that Jews used to deposit with a rabbinic court in the Middle Ages when they traded throughout the Mediterranean basin and were absent from home for long periods. If their whereabouts were unknown after a few years, the get came into force and the woman was declared a divorcee.

When Jews from Mandate Palestine were recruited into the Jewish Brigade during World War II, then chief rabbi Yitzhak Herzog made sure that all conscripts first signed a conditional get, to prevent aginut or the need for yibum. And, indeed, not a single woman married to a soldier in this brigade remained an aguna or had to undergo yibum or halitza.

When the Israel Defense Forces were established, the IDF's first chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, also prepared a conditional get that all soldiers had to sign. But to everyone's astonishment, Rabbi Herzog, of all people, attacked Rabbi Goren and demanded that all these forms, both the signed and the unsigned, be destroyed. His reasons are unknown to this day, but I heard this story directly from Rabbi Goren when Israel was searching for the submarine Dakar, which had disappeared with all its crew.

In other words, there is no barrier to adding a conditional get to every ketuba (marriage document), which would take effect if the husband disappeared for several years or refused to divorce his wife. But since Judaism has no pope, and the fanatic ultra-Orthodox rabbis have long since separated themselves from the general Israeli public, and are foreign to its progress and way of life - those enlightened rabbis should at least stand up and revive a custom that used to exist, which would bring relief to many women who are currently like chattels in the hands of evil or missing husbands.

With regard to conversion as well, our ancestors were incomparably more broad-minded and open-hearted than those holy men who serve nowadays, and who pretend to put individual and public welfare at the top of their priorities. At the time of the Mishna, and for years thereafter, those who sought to join the people of Israel were not asked to undergo an inquisitorial conversion process like that demanded by today's zealots. The rabbis simply said: "Because they became assimilated, they were assimilated. And we do not investigate and we do not inquire, and all the families are kosher henceforth" (Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin).

And because all immigrants under the Law of Return, being children, grandchildren or spouses of Jews, have assimilated among us - despite not having a Jewish mother - it is clear that had they accepted them as equals and granted them equal citizenship, they would have assimilated even more easily, and more willingly.

But the rabbis are only courageous when it comes to inciting their followers against the Palestinians - to steal their lands, destroy their houses and orchards, harass them and sometimes even worse.

Soon, there are likely to be elections, and then the ball will be in the voters' court. We must therefore hope that these voters, and especially the secular, finally abandon their apathy and begin demanding what we were promised in the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the State of Israel: full equality for every citizen of the state, and freedom of religion and conscience.

More on Haaretz.com:

  • The rabbi who freed 1,000 agunot

  • Jerusalem And Babylon / When rabbis can bring salvation

  • Rabbis (male) to discuss problem of agunot

  • A call for revolt

  • Saving women from the 'chain'

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