The rabbi who freed 1,000 agunot
In late 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, then-chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef received a query from the chief military chaplain, Brigadier General Mordechai Piron, regarding almost 1,000 cases of missing IDF soldiers who remained in the field, all of whom were married men.
Rabbi Yosef, who was just at the beginning of his term as chief rabbi but who had gained prominence as a respected posek (arbiter of halakha, Jewish law), took upon himself one of the most complicated halakhic assignments since the establishment of the state: he was appointed as president of the IDF's Court for Agunot Affairs, which dealt in 1974 with issues relating to agunot - literally, "chained women," because their husbands did not or could not give them a religious divorce, leaving the wives unable to remarry according to Jewish law.
In his vast halakhic treatise, Yabia Omer, Rabbi Yosef devoted long chapters to the matter of agunot, and to the halakhic principles whereby some 1,000 married women could remarry on the basis of various, partial testimonies that their husbands died.
Aginut, or the state of being an aguna, is a complex halakhic issue, which many halakhic arbiters avoid, primarily out of fear that they will mistakenly allow a woman whose husband is alive and one day will return home, to remarry.
In the preface to his Responsa, written in the month of Shvat 5734 (1974), Rabbi Yosef explained the importance of permitting agunot to remarry, and directed a little barb at rabbis who fled from this complex and critical halakhic issue: "I am aware of the way of some scholars in our generation, a way of light, of fleeing from every doubt in the world so that they will be able to present clear and decisive halakhic ruling to the point that it is incontrovertible; and indeed their way is good and honest in all other teachings, but when it comes to the aginut of a woman, I do not take the same approach, I only follow in the path of our early and late rabbis, who sought other sides and other sides of sides with all their might in order to be lenient in the matter of the aginut of a women."
"Rabbi Yosef was called upon to deal with one of his greatest legal, dramatic and humanitarian issues, and by definition one of his toughest Israeli assignments," journalist Adam Baruch wrote years later in his book "Seder Yom." "The ultra-Orthodox posek functioned here like a modern lab (-) his halakhic work in the matter of the agunot was a humane example and a halakhic example; an undertaking that reverberated deeply in Israeli society as a whole."
Now Rabbi Yosef is likely to be called on to handle a similar assignment. From his perspective, the case of the abducted soldiers focuses first of all on the possibility that Ehud Goldwasser's wife, Karnit, will become an aguna.
This past Sunday, the first stop was taken on the long and exhausting journey for the Goldwasser and Regev families, starting in Jerusalem at 45 Hakablan Street, the home of the leader of the Shas party. The soldiers' families asked the rabbi to instruct his four ministers to vote in favor of the deal with Hezbollah, but his involvement in the matter will be much more extensive. The keys are in his hands even in the event that the prisoner exchange deal is not even brought to the cabinet for a vote.
Chief IDF Chaplain Brigadier General Avi Ronsky will not declare Goldwasser and Regev killed in action without first consulting with the supreme halakhic authority, certainly when it comes to matters relating to agunot. Minister Eli Yishai, who also met with the families, told them that as far as Rabbi Yosef is concerned, "the decisive factor is the aginut of Karnit," adding, "it is too soon to say how the rabbi will decide. He is still waiting for additional data."
Is it possible to learn from the experience of the past what Rabbi Yosef will tell Rabbi Ronsky, who has been asked to start working to declare Goldwasser and Regev as killed in action? In his Responsa from 5734, Rabbi Yosef breaks down into their halakhic components the cases in which soldiers' bodies were identified on the basis of the dog-tag, personal documents, "photographs" of the body, or fingerprints. A special chapter is devoted to a case where there was no trace found of the body of a pilot whose plane was hit by a missile, but the pilot's friend, who was flying in the plane next to him, testified that the pieces of the plane fell into the sea.
In this case as well, after a detailed halakhic discussion, Rabbi Yosef ruled with regard to the wife of that same pilot that "there should be a lenient approach and she should be freed from her status, a priori."
But in the hundreds of cases in which Rabbi Yosef decided to permit agunot to remarry, he always had before him some physical evidence or at least reliable testimony as far as halakha is concerned, as in the case of the pilot. In no case did the rabbi permit an aguna to remarry based on an intelligence assessment and analysis by medical personnel.
Minister Yishai said that Rabbi Yosef is careful given the case of Hezi Shai, who was declared a casualty of the first Lebanon War and then two years later was found in captivity.
Rabbi Yosef, say those in his circles, will always favor the physical findings over intelligence and medical assessments, especially when it comes to releasing an aguna. Does this mean that in his two capacities as the leader of Shas and as a posek of halakha, he will prefer a deal? His associates respond in the affirmative, and that is also the view of Rabbi Benny Lau, whose doctoral thesis was on Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's halakhic doctrines.
"If there is any chance that in a prisoner deal some sign from the soldiers will be received, a sign of life or a sign of death, he will say that any price is worth it," Lau said.