The Important Difference Between 'Chained' Wives in Israel and Abroad

On the Fast of Esther, we recognize the plight of agunot by marking International Agunah Day and urging state actors to take a stand.

The number of instances of agunot (chained wives) has risen in the United States in recent years. A study conducted by The Mellman Group and published in October 2011 reported that the number of agunah cases there had risen yearly for five years, bringing the total number to 462 in the year 2011, with one third of those cases occurring in that last year. As the divorce rate rises in Israel, the Jewish state risks following a similar trend.

The big difference is, the authorities there can prevent it.

The modern-day agunah is a woman who is a victim of get-refusal. Even if a woman has exited a marriage via civil divorce in the Diaspora or by separating from her husband in Israel, she cannot be considered a divorcée according to Jewish law until she has received the writ of divorce – the get—from her husband. The catch is that the get must be given out of the husband's free will. Fortified with this knowledge, even seemingly good men can turn this power into a tool of vengeance or extortion. By refusing to give the get, a man can name his price or just say "no," thus bringing the woman's personal status into a state of Jewish limbo – a "husbandless wife" chained to her Jewish marriage.

In essence, the root of the agunah problem is the same all over the Jewish world – the need, according to Orthodox Jewish law, for the husband's agreement to divorce his wife. However, there are two critical differences between the Israeli problem of get-refusal and the one in the Diaspora: who is affected on the one hand and who can move to obliterate the problem on the other.

Outside of the State of Israel it is the woman who married in an Orthodox wedding ceremony who is in need of a get issued under the auspices of an Orthodox Rabbinical Court. According to the Pew Report of October 2013, 10 percent of U.S. Jews identify with Orthodox Judaism. That leaves the agunah problem as a predicament for a relatively small, though conspicuous, segment of the Jewish population. Within that group, fractionalization is rampant. Any proposed solutions to the agunah problem must be accepted by all within Orthodoxy, or else the ability to marry one another would be severely diminished, for one group's divorcée would be another's married woman.

This is already evident when it comes to prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal. Even though Modern Orthodoxy's Rabbinical Council of America has provided such a prenuptial agreement for over 20 years, other rabbis have not availed themselves of this effective preventative solution, and do not promote it.

Other - relatively weak - remedies include either turning to the gentiles to do the work of preventing agunot via the legislation of so-called "get laws" or through the imposing of social sanctions against an individual get-refuser in a given community. This situation clearly demonstrates the need for the rabbinical leaders to agree on systemic solutions.

Conversely, all Jews who marry in the State of Israel do so in an Orthodox ceremony. Lacking civil marriage and divorce, all are required by law to arrange a divorce in the state Rabbinical Courts, which are Orthodox. As a result, many a secular woman, alongside the Orthodox women, finds herself caught in the web of her husband's intransigence.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and the state Rabbinical Courts have the authority to resolve this situation, it has not yet happened. Apparently, not enough political pressure has been brought to bear to have them make this issue one of top priority. It is indeed primarily the Chief Rabbinate’s responsibility to develop systemic solutions. To date, other rabbis and female rabbinical court advocates who are experts in Jewish family law have filled the vacuum created by the leading rabbis' lack of efforts. For example, a team (of which I was a member) developed the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect" for the prevention of get-refusal. Another example is the approach to resolving an agunah case via the mechanism of a "mistaken transaction" proposed by a rabbinic authority, albeit one who does not serve as a Rabbinical Court Judge.

Lacking agreement between the rabbinic leaders of Israel, other state institutions can each contribute their part. Indeed the various courts - the Rabbinical Courts, the civil Family Court, the Supreme Court – all find themselves caught up in the problem on a regular basis, at times even competing for jurisdiction, which makes matters worse. Clear regulations that delineate jurisdiction would help prevent recalcitrant spouses from playing one court against the other.

This brings us to the legislative body, the Knesset. Although there is a debate among the agunah activists as to which bills would help matters, all agree that the Knesset can and should make a difference via legislation. In fact, the present Knesset is indeed relating to the agunah problem in an admirable fashion. The Israel Bar Association, state-funded synagogues and organizations, as well as educational institutions can all play their part.

To recognize the plight of the agunah and in order to raise consciousness of this blight on Jewish society, International Agunah Day was established in 1990, and takes place annually on the day of the Fast of Esther. This year it falls on March 13.

In Queen Esther's day, she gathered all the Jews of Shushan to fast for her. This solid communal support gave her the strength to bring salvation to the entire community. In Israel today, the communal support is represented by state institutions. Not only the rabbis are responsible for solutions; the state carries responsibility as well. All must gather with the common purpose of resolving the agunah problem. Resolution for the agunah will come from within that unity of purpose.

Dr. Rachel Levmore, Rabbinical Court Advocate, is the Director of the Agunot and Get-Refusal Prevention Project, of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of a team that developed the prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect" for the Prevention of Get-Refusal; and is a sitting member of the State of Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinic Court Judges.

"Marriage is not a prison": A religious couple walks by a demonstrator protesting Jewish religious divorce policy in Jerusalem.
Alex Levak