Woman in chains: Will anything change for Agunot


By Michael Orbach

Issue of September 3, 2010/ 24 Elul 5770

The rally was for an imprisoned woman who was not behind bars.

Two dozen or so college-age protesters, young Orthodox men and women, stood in front of a off-white stucco house in Brooklyn.

The Aug. 18 rally was called by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, known by its initials as ORA, to protest the fate of a 27-year-old woman named Tamar. Despite being separated for two years and civilly divorced since April, Tamar’s husband, 34, an attorney on the staff of a high-profile Congressional committee who lives in Silver Spring, MD, is refusing to give her a get, a religious divorce. Without the get, Tamar is an Agunah, a "chained" woman, bound to her husband by Jewish law and unable to marry again.

The Brooklyn house belonged to her husband’s uncle, a rabbi who had advocated on the husband’s behalf in beis din and supported his refusal to give a get. The protesters chanted slogans against the uncle and handed out fliers bearing photographs of the husband’s cherubic face and his uncle’s, along with a letter from Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, a Rosh Yeshiva in Philadelphia, that criticized the two men. The Jewish Star is withholding the name of the husband at this time to avoid possibly hindering the get process.

Tamar married her husband in 2006 when she was 22 and he was 29. The marriage was “rocky from the start,” she said, but the couple had a daughter together. In 2008, when their daughter was five months old, she moved back in with her parents in Philadelphia. After two months, Tamar felt that the marriage was over and began divorce proceedings. Her husband filed an emergency appeal to force her to move back to Silver Spring but was turned down by the court. The couple went to the Baltimore Beis Din to arbitrate their divorce. Midway through the mediation, against beis din protocol, her husband took the case to civil court, she said.

When the judge indicated that he would rule in favor of Tamar, the husband attempted to bring the case back to beis din, but beis din refused to hear the case since there was a verdict from a secular court. The court ruled that Tamar would receive full physical custody of their daughter and share legal custody with her husband. When the two were separated Tamar asked for a get and her husband refused. That’s when ORA stepped in.

Founded in 2002 by several undergraduate students at Yeshiva University, the organization works to help women and men attain full religious divorces. In most cases, according to Jeremy Stern, the director of ORA, the organization works as a third party to help couples resolve their get issues. Most cases ORA deals with involve men refusing to give a get. When mediation proves impossible, the organization ramps up its efforts, in some cases using whatever public and legal means are available.

“We use all legal remedies to pressure the recalcitrant parties,” Stern explained. “We don’t bust a knee cap but we include social, financial and legal pressure.”

The public rally was the result of a failure to negotiate a get with Tamar’s ex-husband. The hope was that the public pressure against him and his uncle would make him reconsider. The night before the rally, the husband called a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University in the hope that ORA could be pressured to call off the protest.

“A get is not meant to be an instrument of extortion,” said Rabbi Kenneth Auman, the rav of the Young Israel of Flatbush, who attended the rally. Rabbi Auman estimated that in the 25 years he’s been in Brooklyn he’s been involved in at least 10 cases of Agunot.

Tamar’s case is also complicated because no one knows why exactly her husband is holding back the get. He has refused to speak about it with her and did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

“It’s very unclear what he’s trying to get from me other than getting back at me,” Tamar explained, adding that she was willing to compromise on some of the custody issues. “I know he has a lot of anger at me for leaving him... I don’t understand what would justify him not giving a get other than getting back to me.”

A family member of the husband who contacted The Jewish Star indicated that child custody was the issue. A light drizzle began during the rally and some of the protesters unfurled umbrellas. Stern announced that he had seen the uncle leave his house a few minutes before the rally began, but nonetheless, the crowd wouldn’t be deterred. Stern, an energetic youthful man, began another chant. A digital camera peeked out one of the shaded windows and snapped several shots.

“We’re going to come back repeatedly until [he] frees his wife,” Stern screamed at the almost-empty house.

Later, the protest moved to the home of Tamar’s former mother-in-law, where perplexed non-Jewish neighbors watched from a nearby porch.

In eight years, ORA has managed to resolve 140 cases through different means. Typically, the organization has 70 cases open at any time, that are handled by a two member staff composed of Stern, who received semicha, rabbinical ordination, from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), and Miriam Colton, a recent Columbia Law School graduate. Colton, who is working on Tamar’s case, is a former estate tax attorney who left the corporate world after taking an Agunah case pro-bono.

“I got hooked on it,” she said. “It’s draining emotionally but it [is] really meaningful to impact someone’s life.”

While the majority of the cases that ORA deals with involve a husband refusing to give a get, occasionally the encounter a woman who refuses to accept one. Those account for only five percent of the cases ORA deals with, Stern said. In most situations, the organization acts as a clear-headed, neutral go-between for both husband and wife as they divorce. The organization has dealt with couples from across the religious spectrum - from non-affiliated to chasidic.

Jewish law is explicit when it comes to the laws of divorce. If a man refuses to give his wife a get, the wife is unable to marry again unless the man dies. Additionally, a man cannot be forced to give his wife a get against his will, but must give it of his own volition.

“Jewish Law expects the man to give and the woman to receive the get,” explained Rabbi Michael Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University and author of “Marriage, Divorce and the Abandoned Wife in Jewish Law.” “And there’s no way to readily get around that.”

Publicly shaming an individual to force him to give a get is an old tactic. Typically, when a man refuses to give a get, ORA will seek a hazmana, a summons, for him to come to beis din. If he still persists in refusing to give a get, the beis din can issue a seruv, essentially excommunicating him, though the strength of an ex-communication has waned.

“In Europe the community had some type of autonomy and then a cherem meant complete financial and communal ostracizing,” explained Stern. “There’s no way for a beis din to enforce its ruling aside from an organization like ORA.”

Nothing new

The problem of agunot is not a new one. The Talmud first discusses the case of the Agunah when a husband goes out to war or is lost at sea.

“The term meant something different centuries ago,” Rabbi Broyde explained. “500 years ago the case was a husband who disappeared, who might be dead or kidnapped, but we weren’t sure. 500 years ago, a husband turns to his wife and says ‘I’m going to Italy,’ and he steps on a boat and we never hear from him again. Every case was examined if the husband was alive or deceased. If he was deceased she could remarry again.”

Tami Arad, the wife of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, is currently the most famous such Agunah.

“The Forward [newspaper] about a 100 years ago used to print pictures of husbands who fled to the U.S.,” Rabbi Stern said. “These women were classical Agunot. Tragically there are Agunot from the Holocaust and from M.I.A’s in Israel. Most recently Ehud Goldwasser’s wife was an agunah until they ascertained his death. [There are cases from] 9/11, men who literally disappeared.”

Within the last hundred years, the term has usually come to refer to cases in which a husband simply refuses to give a get. Rabbi Stern pinpoints several reasons for men withholding a get: monetary settlement, a better custody deal for children, for spite, or for love. The last, Rabbi Stern says, is the most difficult to deal with.

“Husbands who don’t get their marriages are over and they still profess their love,” Rabbi Stern explained.

Rabbi Broyde sees the issue as compounded by the combination of civil and religious marriage that makes the get another factor in sometimes-lengthy divorce settlements.

“The central Agunah problem in America is the relationship between the civil divorce and the Jewish divorce. People want both of these to arrive concurrently,” he said. “And that doesn’t necessarily happen...The problem is that upon filing a civil divorce wife and husband expect the get to be forthcoming immediately. It’s not always the case, but most Agunot are in situations in which the couple is haggling still about their civil divorce. There are harder cases, but if you adopt a definition that an Agunah is someone who has a civil divorce but not a religious divorce, then you have one model of thinking about it. There are other ways to approach this also, and particularly when the couple signs a prenuptial agreement governing the giving and receiving of a get. These models are better.”

The longest case ORA has is an Israeli man by the name of Danny Zadok who fled Israel and now lives in L.A. He demanded $20 million in exchange for a get. ORA sued him for intentional infliction of damage and child support and won a default judgment against him.

“I don’t think the entire system is broken,” Rabbi Stern said. “This is probably one of the most extreme cases.”

The longest living Agunah is believed to be Susan Zinkin, a retired Orthodox Jewish teacher from London. She was an Agunah for 48 years until her husband died this past February.

“As awful as it may sound my ex-husband’s death is a great relief and a huge weight off my shoulders - to be stuck like that was so cruel,” Zinkin, 73, told the British newspaper, The Independent. “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.”

Preemptive solutions

Some communities have opted to deal with the issue of Agunot preemptively by pushing couples to sign prenuptial agreements that impose severe financial consequences if a husband refuses to give a get. However, for activists, the practice is not nearly widespread enough.

“What I’m more frustrated by is when people don’t do more to protect themselves from someone abusing the system,” Rabbi Stern said. “I don’t think it’s a flaw in the system; just like you can have a business partner who gives you a run for your money, so too here.”

He said that the prenuptial agreements are “100 percent successful in ensuring that the get is given in a timely fashion.”

Rabbi Auman says that his shul recommends their congregants sign prenuptial agreements before marriage. He says that the practice is widespread in the Modern Orthodox community but far less popular in more yeshivish and Chassidic circles, for a variety of reasons.

“They range from a general reluctance to have any kind of innovation - the Chasam Sofer said ‘anything new is prohibited,’” Rabbi Auman explained. “You have people who are generally reluctant to institute any kind of new practice, others have problems with the technicalities, with issues that the get might be invalid since [the prenuptial agreement] could be considered coercion. The other objection I heard from one rabbi is it’s insulting to present this to a chosson [groom] and a kallah (bride). You are implying that they may do such a thing. Other than the middle reason, the other two are not worthy of discussion.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for the Agudath Israel of America, agreed that pre-nuptial agreements are not common in the charedi world. None of his six married children has one, he said. “My understanding of the reason is that detailing what will happen in the event, G-d forbid, of a divorce would start a marriage off on a negative, dangerous note,” Rabbi Shafran explained. “The message a newlywed may take from it, especially in our times, sadly, is that marriage is like any business agreement. Clauses in a contract establishing a legal partnership would understandably deal with the event of the partnership’s dissolution. But a joining of two people into one is qualitatively different, and incomparably important. So, to begin the challenging but holy enterprise of married life amid thoughts of what will transpire at a divorce is neither prudent nor proper.”

Colton said that the prenuptial agreement acts as a kind self-control.

“Divorce brings out the worst,” she said. “Things go bad and people lose control. That’s why we push the prenuptial agreement. When a bad situation happens to you, protect yourself from yourself.”

A marriage can be invalidated retroactively, though, according to Rabbi Broyde, situations such as this, known as Kedushai Taot, a mistaken marriage, are exceedingly rare.

“The most common one is the marriage was improperly entered into,” Rabbi Broyde said. “Sometimes there’s fraud in the inducement and sometimes there’s an invalid ceremony.”

For a woman who refuses to accept a get, a man can receive a “Heter Me’ah Rabonim,” literally permission from 100 rabbis, amounting to a rabbinical dispensation to marry again. That too, is rare though more common than a retroactive invalidation.

The Beis Din of America has performed Heter Me’ah Rabonim on a few occasions, Rabbi Auman said, but only when a woman was “totally mentally incapacitated” and the husband agreed to put up an escrow to care for her.

Hard evidence

A major problem for Agunah activists is that there simply is no hard evidence about the number of women in that situation. That might change through the work of Barbara Zakheim. The Washington D.C. based Zakheim is the founder of the Jewish Women’s Coalition against Domestic Abuse. She has launched a survey through 65 national Jewish organizations to determine the number and the socio-economic condition of Agunot. The impetus for the survey is sheer frustration.

“Since we seem to be going nowhere halachically, at least the community can look at it as another social issue that it has to deal with, like when we have an obligation to take care of widows, orphans, or people with disabilities,” Zakheim explained. “Here we have a halachic disability.”

Zakheim says that through her work with the Jewish Coalition against Domestic Violence she has been shocked by what she views as a “lack of compassion” from rabbis about the issue. In some cases, she saw rabbis telling wives to pay off their husbands to receive a get or women left in “dire circumstances” because of a careless beis din verdict.

Zakheim said she is looking to publish the results by Pesach and hopes that the Jewish community will react to it and at the very least, be able to help struggling Agunot. “If there aren’t so many then it’s not going to cost us so much to deal with it,” she explained. “[But] if one person is sick does it make sickness any less important?”

“The community is trying to get a resolution of it in a compassionate way that will work in Halacha,” Zakheim continued. “Halacha and compassion are not mutually exclusive.”