Gotta Get a Get - Agunah Day Guide for the Perplexed

On International Agunah Day, advocates say that Jewish divorce laws still leave many women in legal chains - and recalcitrant husbands with all the power.

Thursday is International Agunah Day. In case that’s not in your vocabulary, an agunah is a woman who is “anchored” – to her husband, despite his having skipped town, moved on or otherwise disappeared without having first provided a get, a Jewish writ of divorce. Membership in the world’s oldest monotheistic religion has its charms, but also its challenges.

The prototype for a divorce is mentioned in none other than the biblical book of Deuteronomy, and further expounded upon in the Mishnah and the Talmud. The dynamic is not exactly geared for the partnership between equals that modern women have come to expect. A man can decide if and when to issue a get to his wife – it doesn’t work the other way around – and he’s supposed to do it of his own free will.

Thus, over the years thousands of Israeli women – including secular women -- and Orthodox or otherwise observant Jewish women around the world have found themselves stuck waiting for a get from estranged husbands. That leaves them in legal limbo, unable to remarry, and in danger of having their progeny designated as mamzerim (akin to bastards) if they go on to have children with someone else. Today, it’s more common for women to be put in the category of mesurevet get, someone who is refused a writ of divorce, in which a woman’s husband can hold out from providing the all-important document, issued only as part of a proceedings in front of a three-man beit din, a panel of religious judges. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the husband can get his wife to drop or drastically reduce her legitimate claims to property and finances. In short, if he doesn’t like the looks of the divorce settlement, he can leave her on hold for years.

Rabbinical pressure

Aware of this abuse of the already unequal system, rabbinical authorities have long had their “ways” of pressuring a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a get. These included turning the man into the village pariah, or even what the Shin Bet might call “moderate physical pressure.” More recently, in Israel various arms of the state can and do sometimes apply “sanctions” to try to force husbands to do the right thing. These range from freezing his checking account, invalidating his driver’s license, preventing him from leaving the country, and in extreme cases, imprisonment. Still, according to Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, chair of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, even in the most extreme cases – women in such an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional marriage that the religious court is keen to end it – the rate of issuing sanctions is no more than 30 percent.

That figure comes from a Rackman Center study on enforcement published in 2011, Halperin-Kaddari explains, and the latest, soon-to-be published data indicate that little has changed in the last three years. “Our surveys show that the sanctions are not widely used, and there’s no reason to believe that the rate has been growing,” she adds.

A law passed by the Knesset in 1995, the Judgment Implementations Law, was meant to ameliorate the problem by empowering the state and religious authorities. “The law is not being implemented. It is terribly, terribly underused,” she says. The center also found that one out of every three women going through a divorce is faced with extortion on the basis of the husband’s power to refuse her a get. And more than half of religious women say that in the process of getting a divorce, the husband implied or directly threatened that he would not give her a get.

Almost a quarter-century ago, advocates for change declared the first International Agunah Day, to be held each year on the 13th of Adar, known as the Feast of Esther. Why then? Queen Esther is the heroine of the upcoming holiday of Purim, and she – along with her predecessor, Vashti – are today viewed as feminists before their time. (Vashti defies the king when he tries to objectify her by parading her before a drunken banquet of his pals, while Esther uses her cunning to save the Jewish people from the genocidal Haman.)

Changes in the air

So has anything actually changed since 1990, when that First International Agunah Day was declared? Not nearly enough. But a few important developments are afoot:

1. ICAR, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, a coalition of 27 advocacy groups, has drafted 15 suggestions for new legislation. Representatives were due to present them to the Knesset’s Committee on Women this week, but they’ve been rescheduled for May. One of these proposed laws would stop the “race of jurisdiction,” in which whoever runs first to the court with their request for a divorce - religious courts favor the husband much more than do secular courts - acquires sole jurisdiction in the case.

There have been other recent legislative successes. In 2012 the Knesset passed the Sanctions Law, drafted by the NGO Mevoi Satum and then-MK Otniel Shneller (Kadima), which for the first time declared rabbinic courts accountable for conducting hearings and imposing sanctions on recalcitrant husbands.

2. Of Israel’s 11-member committee that appoints dayanim, or rabbinical judges, three are now women – a change from years past. In December, when two seats will open up, one of them will be filled by a woman, according to an agreement made with agunot rights activists.

ICAR is also leading a fight to open up the position of rabbinical court administrator to women, as that job doesn’t have to be filled by an Orthodox rabbi, and therefore a man. “We are very active in trying to get the best rabbinical court judges appointed. We strongly believe that if the right people will sit there, 85 percent if not more of these cases will be solved,” says Robyn Shames, executive director of ICAR.

The manager of Bar-Ilan’s Rackman Center, attorney Atara Kenigsberg, has already been a candidate for the job – and is leading the campaign to change the current law so that the position will be clearly open for women.

3. There are ongoing efforts to create an international rabbinical court that would be authorized to hear cases from any country. The theory is that while a country’s laws are its own, halakha – Jewish religious law – knows no geographical boundaries, says Blu Greenberg, a leading Jewish feminist who is spearheading the movement. “One option is to perpetuate and be faithful to halakhic marriage and divorce, but find solutions that would simply disempower a husband to blackmail or extort his wife,” Greenberg tells Haaretz. “That’s where the international beit din comes in. It will be New York-based, but hopefully its decisions would be recognized by the rabbinical authorities here.”

4. Creative solutions to prevent future agunot include conditional marriages, which are easier to dissolve, and the signing of a pre-nuptial agreement. Just last week, Tzohar, an organization of moderate national religious rabbis who often conduct weddings of secular Israelis, ruled that it would require all of its rabbis to require a couple to sign these pre-nups before going to the huppah.

Pierre Terdjman / BauBau