Rabbis (Male) to Discuss Problem of Agunot

An international conference of rabbis and rabbinical judges will be held in Jerusalem at the beginning of November on halakhic ways to solve the problem of women whose husbands refuse to divorce them.

The conference will focus on means of pressuring husbands to grant their wives a divorce, from imposing economic and social sanctions on them to prenuptial agreements. However, representatives of women's organizations that campaign for the rights of agunot - women whose husbands have disappeared without divorcing them or whose husbands refuse to divorce them - have not been invited to the conference.

While women's organizations have been demanding for years that something be done to help these women, this is the first time that the Chief Rabbinate, which is sponsoring the conference, and the rabbinical courts have admitted that there is a problem that needs solving.

"Behind every man who refuses to divorce his wife stands a family and an entire community that supports him and provides him with social and economic assistance. Society must publicly condemn men who refuse divorce, just as it denounces rapists and pedophiles," said Eli Ben Dahan director general of the rabbinical courts.

Some 40 representatives from 15 countries, mostly important rabbis, are expected to attend the conference - which, though sponsored by the Chief Rabbinate, is mainly the result of pressure exerted by two groups: the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW), headed by Attorney Sharon Shenhav, and ICAR: International Coalition for Agunah Rights, which consists of 25 organizations active in this issue.

Every year, some 50 additional women are stranded without a divorce and cannot remarry, even though a number of cases are also solved, according to the rabbinical courts. Ben Dahan and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar say that the situation in Israel is better than it is in Diaspora communities. However, women's organizations disagree, asserting that the number of women stranded without a divorce is much bigger than the rabbinical courts say.

"The situation in Israel is a catastrophe. The rabbis should use the sanctions at their disposal and take action, instead of looking for the guilty party elsewhere," said Rahel Azaria, director general of Mavoi Satum ('Dead End'), an organization that assists agunot.

Azaria does not understand why the conference is being organized by the rabbinical courts, which, she said, do not assist the stranded women at all, but rather drag their feet, miring divorce cases in red tape.

Neither Shenhav, Azaria, nor dozens of other representatives of women's organizations have been invited to the conference.

An assistant to Rabbi Amar said that the women's exclusion was coordinated with them. Ben Dahan said that since the conference is to deal with halakhic issues, the speakers are (male) rabbis and rabbinical judges. But activists from the women's organizations charged that women were excluded to please the leader of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, who gave his consent to the conference.

ICAR coordinator Robin Shames said that the coalition welcomes any attempt to solve the problem of women who cannot get a divorce. Susan Weiss, a lawyer with the Center for Women's Justice, added: "Today, the rabbis know that they cannot drag cases out forever, but they only talk among themselves, remaining closed to other solutions."

Dr. Aviad Hacohen, a constitutional expert and dean of the Shaarei Mishpat Law College, said that female activists are not the only ones excluded from the conference: So is anyone who does not belong to the rabbinical establishment. In that way, he said, the rabbinical establishment forestalls serious debate on proposals by rabbis and academics from outside its circle on how to solve the predicament.

Three ICAR organizations will hold a parallel, alternative conference in Jerusalem on November 7, which will discuss solutions that will not be brought up at the rabbis' conference. The halakhic and constitutional solutions proposed in recent years include prenuptial agreements, probational marriages for a limited period of time, or civil marriages sanctioned by the rabbinical courts.