Jewish Divorce: Why the Silence?

The prevalence of agunot, or chained wives, in the United States is startling; it’s high time we got informed and took a stand against the phenomenon, and the Jewish men who perpetuate it.

Yael Miller
Yael Miller
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Yael Miller
Yael Miller

A battle is raging in the Jewish-American community.

Recently, a demonstration took place ten minutes away from my apartment in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., in which protesters demanded that a government employee issue his wife a get, or Jewish divorce, a full three years after their civil divorce.

The phenomenon of women struggling to get a Jewish divorce from their husbands is troubling. The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot has assisted in over 170 cases in the past ten years and currently has over 70 open cases, and a recent survey labeled the total number of agunot, or chained wives, in the United States as 462 – a figure which likely under represents the true number.

The documentary “Women Unchained” describes the often-nasty process of “getting a get,” and it is commonly known that, at times, men demand large sums of money from their wives or use the battle over a Jewish divorce to gain additional custody rights to children. The New York Times, in an article on Women Unchained, describes one Jewish get that cost the wife $400,000 to attain.

Orthodox women wanting to move on with their lives are essentially forced to live in a state of purgatory. In essence, they are simultaneously married and not married. Whether Orthodox or secular, the refusal to grant a woman a get can have ripple effects on the family. For example, if a wife who never obtained a Jewish divorce gets re-married civilly and her child marriage chooses to get married in Israel, that child may have extreme difficulty getting permission from the Chief Rabbinate. The problem is so great that it was described by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance as “one of the greatest crises in the Orthodox world today.”

In a country like the United States, where women benefit from access to education and high levels of opportunity, we, as Jews, should be ashamed of ourselves. There is absolutely no reason for this phenomenon to be so prevalent. Men who use Jewish divorce as a bargaining chip should be severely condemned and pressured by the Jewish community into understanding that this is not acceptable.

The media should also take a stand. While it focuses much attention on the lack of equality for women who wish to pray at the Western Wall, it rarely puts the spotlight on agunot and other women’s rights issues, like domestic abuse protection. It is absurd that women in the United States are not more aware of this issue, which affect the lives of so many women here.

One doesn’t have to specialize in halakha (Jewish law) to be informed; speaking with local rabbis is a great first step. Rabbis should make sure that Orthodox women are well aware of their ability to create a prenuptial agreement, which is a solution espoused the International Rabbinic Fellowship, for example, in response to the agunah issue.

In addition, by reading, writing and speaking about the topic, we can all become better informed and advocate to our Orthodox friends and family. It’s a common saying and understanding that if the minorities of a community aren’t protected, then no one receives protection. Remember the poem, “First they came…”?

The Jewish divorce issue might be a global one, but there is absolutely no reason for it to prevail in the United States. It’s high time we make ourselves informed, and take a stand to solve this issue that’s brewing in our own backyard.

Yael Miller is an International Affairs professional in Washington, DC.

Agunot, or chained women, struggle to obtain religious divorces from their husbands (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime

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