When Sharon thinks back to her wedding night, she remembers how the lights of Jerusalem enveloped her, how she adored her groom, and also this: a kiss. After Sharon removed her deck tichel, the opaque cloth that fervently Orthodox brides wear to hide their faces, her new-mother-in-law grabbed her, planted a kiss on her cheek and whispered, “You’re part of the family now.”
Three decades later, Sharon, whose name has been changed for this essay, found herself battling to sever those ties. More than anything, she wanted to receive a Jewish divorce. And as for many women, particularly those who adhere to Orthodox traditions, Jewish law prevented her from reaching that goal.
For five long years, Sharon served her time in the limbo known as being an agunah. Though she says that her husband had been diagnosed with mental illness, dabbled with cocaine and adultery, and physically abused her, she could not break the bonds of marriage without his consent. He ignored her pleas for a get, a writ of Jewish divorce. She was trapped in her husband’s family, dealing with her sister-in-law and brother-in-law, while her husband remained far away in a Midwestern state, recovering from drug abuse in a rehabilitation center, and dating other women.
In Judaism, a few sentences in Deuteronomy mandate the protocol: The husband initiates the divorce; the wife receives it. The wife who dares to date without first obtaining a get confronts community ostracism, and the possibility of burdening future children with the label of mamzerim, bastards. It is a designation that endures for at least 10 generations, a fate that prevents future progeny from ever being accepted in the Orthodox fold. It is a fate that is arguably worse than that of being an agunah.
And so, at the bitter end of so many Jewish marriages, nuptials that began with an explosion of mazel tovs and shattered glass, women can find themselves stuck, chained to a marriage they’ve long ago forsaken. And the men, sometimes seething, sometimes despairing, can use their leverage in exchange for whatever it is they value: child custody, property, money. Some scholars link agunah with the Hebrew word ogen, which means “anchor”—as in, forever secured to a marriage, even as it tumbles through the stormiest of seas.
No one can say how many cases of agunot exist. There isn’t even agreement on the definition. For example, does one adopt the title of agunah the day after a husband demands his conditions in exchange for a Jewish divorce, or does one wait until a Jewish court, known as a bet din, issues a seruv, a contempt-of-court notice to the uncooperative spouse? Sometimes, “you know it when you see it,” says Jeremy Stern, the director of ORA, Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, whose not-for-profit ORA has assisted in the resolution of 132 cases in the eight years since its founding. "However, ORA operates under the guidance of Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University, who determines when ORA can take action in agunot cases."
It is not uncommon for cases to drag on long enough to inflict not only short-term pain, but also to cause long-term sacrifices. Beth Berson Kolevzon, a Bronx dentist, who received her civil divorce in her mid-30s, and her Jewish divorce four and half years later in 1992, says she wished to have a child with her second husband. She was too old. “Instead, we have a dog and a bird.”
Some cases last a lifetime. Susan Zinkin, who divorced her husband in Britain’s civil courts in 1962, finally received the green light to date again this February at the age of 73, when her 86-year-old former husband died. She and others tried to shame her husband with protests outside his London home, but to no avail. In an interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, she said: “I’m quite convinced that had the rabbis wanted to get their act together they could have done something within Jewish law and found a solution.”
For centuries, rabbis have diligently tackled the issue, finding whatever solution they could to free women. In the 12th century, Maimonides authorized flogging as a method of attempting to remind the recalcitrant husband of his true, hidden desire, that is, to give the get. As early as the 13th century, rabbis annulled marriages based on the principle of a faulty transaction—since the wife didn’t expect to obtain “a defective product” in the form of a husband who was mentally ill, for example, when she married. For men marching off to war, the rabbis issued “conditional gets,” writs of divorce that would be implemented in the event that the husbands never returned.
By the late 18th and 19th centuries, as the power of the central rabbinical authority waned, as Jews began to travel with greater frequency, the number of agunot began to rise. The problem intensified as Jews became full participants in two societies, secular and religious, “jumping through two hoops,” says Rabbi Michael Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University, and a dayan, a judge, at the Bet Din of America. “People feel that after a civil divorce, they are entitled to a Jewish divorce.”
The dual system continues to present choices and challenges. Rachel, who asked that her real name not be used, recalls that a dayan from the bet din, told her that her husband agreed to give her a get, but only after the civil divorce. Rachel remembers that the dayan chuckled sarcastically, and said, “I don’t think that’s happening anytime soon.” He tried to persuade her to arbitrate the entire divorce, from custody to financial matters, in religious court. It is a practice that agunah activists say often favors the man. Rachel declined.
By the middle of the 20th century, the Conservative movement took a significant step toward eliminating agunot in its midst, adding a clause to the wedding contract. It stated that after a civil divorce, if either party refuses to participate in the get process, husband and wife agree to abide by the religious court’s ruling.
In the Orthodox community, meanwhile, the issue took on new urgency. Two activist organizations, G.E.T. (Get Equal Treatment) and Agunah Inc. emerged in the late 1970s. In the 30 or so years since, many developments have transpired to ease the anguish of agunot. Toanot, female advocates, can advise women in Israeli religious courts. Two laws in New York State, and one in Canada, compel recalcitrant parties to reconsider. Israel sometimes revokes driver’s licenses of uncooperative husbands, and occasionally puts the men behind bars. Many modern and centrist Orthodox rabbis won’t marry couples unless they sign a prenuptial agreement.
And yet, longtime agunah activists view the situation as more desperate than ever. The Orthodox world ridiculed a religious court established in 1996 by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman to annul marriages. In 2006, rabbis suddenly cancelled an international conference on agunot. Last summer, Bernard Jackson, then a professor at the University of Manchester, issued a 200-page report, the first of its kind, proposing halachic solutions to resolve the crisis. Response has been muted.
While the mainstream Orthodox world tilts rightward and challenges the innovation of a woman “rabba” leading an Orthodox synagogue, hundreds of agunah cases languish at religious courts.
“I’ve been working in this area for 35 years and I do not see the system improving,” says Rivka Haut, a prominent Orthodox feminist. “Other than the Jackson report, I’m not aware of any concerted effort to find a global solution. The rabbis haven’t used halachic means to remedy the situation.”
For individual women, though, there can be cause to celebrate. As for Sharon, she’ll be marking a new anniversary next February, the day she received her get. She’s grateful for a friend’s gutsy plan, for the support of Rabbi Peretz Steinberg and for the advice of ORA—a relative newcomer in the field of agunot advocacy, which is the product of young Yeshiva University graduates.
After Sharon’s ex-husband ignored three summonses to appear before the religious court, a friend pulled Sharon aside, proposing a course of action.
Sharon handed out hundreds of fliers in two religious neighborhoods, urging her husband’s family to pressure her husband to give the get. She posted her notice on doors, cars and storefronts. She posted updates of her intentions on her Facebook page. She warned her sister-in-law, in the midst of planning a wedding for a child, that she would show up with a busload of protesters and picket signs at the nuptials.
Elicia Brown, a freelance writer and columnist for The Jewish Week, writes frequently about religion for a variety of publications, including beliefnet.com and Jewish Women Magazine.
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