Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Agunah Crisis: The role of the creative community rabbi

A couple of weeks ago, A Living Nadneyda posted the following comment on my post about Noachide weddings:
Several modern dilemmas of halacha have been waiting eons for creativity to help us save our own society (I am thinking especially of msuravot get). The same level of creativity called upon to unite the Noachides, could be harvested to disband a suffering union.

ALN’s words made me realize that there is a disconnect between the experience of many community rabbis and the perception of the broader Jewish community, regarding the issue of msuravei get (people whose spouses refuse to cooperate with divorce) and agunot (women whose husbands have disappeared).

To put it simply: Community rabbis see the many, many cases in which they successfully arrange for gittin or otherwise free spouses, despite very difficult circumstances. The public, though, only sees the headline cases, in which the rabbis fail.

Clearly, even one case of a woman – or man – who is unable to be divorced is too many. We can never be satisfied with our successes. However, I wish people knew how much sweat and creativity our community rabbis do currently put into enabling gittin, and how successful many of us are in doing so.

I am glad to say that I have not had more than 20-25 divorce cases in my career thusfar, but some of those have been doozies:

I have had cases in which a wife has adamantly refused to receive a Get, in order to hurt her husband or in order to get a better financial settlement. I never want to go the heter meah rabbonim route, so I have had to find ways to make the wife comfortable with receiving a Get.

I have had cases of husbands who have refused to give a Get. It’s usually a financial issue, but there are ways to deal with that – most often by holding the petur (document licensing re-marriage) in escrow until the financial package works out in the civil courts, or by using social pressure. I have also raised money to make the Get possible.

In one memorable case I called the stubborn husband’s 80-year-old mother in Israel at 2 AM her time, to let her know what her son was doing. Fifteen minutes later he was on the phone with me, agreeing to give the Get.

For the more recalcitrant cases, and for cases of agunah where the husband was incompetent to present a get, legitimate halachic authorities use other approaches, including finding reasons to disqualify the original marriage.

My experience is not unique; I know there are many rabbis in my shoes across the United States (I ma not as familiar with the international scene), doing the same things I am doing, every day.

There will always be people who will argue that rabbis possess, and should use, the power to change the rules altogether. Feel free to tell me that rabbis aren’t using the legislative authority assigned to us by the Torah; I disagree, but I know what you mean. But do realize that we are trying hard, within the parameters we understand to be the halachah, to set the agunot and mesuravot get free.

And please, please, use the halachic pre-nuptial agreement endorsed by the Rabbinical Council of America. It’s quick and easy, and if everyone would use it, it would save lives.


  1. IN your experience has the RCA prenup actually ever worked?

  2. Why are you reluctant to use a heter meah rabbanim?

  3. Anonymous-
    I have never known a case in which it had to be enforced, no. (This is hardly surprising, though; my community's problem cases have not involved m'sadrei kiddushin who would have used it at the wedding.)
    Do you know of cases where its enforcement has failed?

    Because it perpetuates the ugly stereotype that rabbis will do anything to help a man become divorced, and won't make equal efforts for a woman.

  4. Yasher Kochacha on this post -- and for calling that guy's mother!

  5. anonymous-
    I have heard of a number of cases where the RCA prenup has worked. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been tried in court, but it has stopped men from using it as leverage.
    One of the most notable occasions where it proved effective was with a man who after demand financial concessions from his wife in lieu of the Get was reminded about the prenup that he signed at his wedding that was done with the same fanfare as the tanaim and ketubah (as per his wishes). His lawyer then told him that if that's the case he has to give the Get.

  6. Thanks for the feedback. I only ask because I have never heard firsthand if the prenup worked. only second or third-hand. I have seen and heard much doubt about its use. I think it is super important and necessary, but I want to know that it actually works as well, so we have a leg to stand on when the skeptics come calling

  7. Nice post. Situations of divorce within a community are always distressing, at best, and it's easy to overlook the many positive steps already being taken.

  8. Shouldn't rabbis insist that finances from previous marriage be "finished" before allowing the divorced to marry again?

  9. muse: They do. The beis din holds the get until the finances are concluded. But at least the get cannot be used as leverage.

  10. Jameel-
    Yes, that was an inspired moment. I've used that case as a threat ever since, and it has been efective with some.


    Muse, R' Gil-
    If both the husband and wife desire the get, we do it and wish them luck. Where one side is not comfortable with a get until the civil settlement is resolved, that's where we hold the petur in escrow.

  11. since you mention the bet din holding the ptur in escrow, that presents problems too. for one, i know of a case where a yc student gave a get, the bet din holds the ptur in escrow, and REFUSES to do a din torah -- "go to (civil) court". so the yc student calls up an ex girlfriend (from scw) and marries her in six months.

    the problem is the ex wife is dragging out the case in court! and the bet din refuses to intercede to speed things up (or give the husband the ptur, which he really doesnt need, since he has chupah ve'kiddushin, but no civil marriage)

    this was before the ex found out her husband remarried.

    and it dragged out so long, that the children of the first marriage DO NOT KNOW they have a step brother from the second marriage, cause the ex wife refuses visitation (despite a court order; the court said we'll do the contempt part of the case after the rest of the case is done!)

    and by the way, its not a charedi bet din, but the one that claims to represent "america"

  12. "we are trying hard, within the parameters we understand to be the halachah, to set the agunot and mesuravot get free."

    besides the tactics you mention (i also like calling up the guy's mom in the middle of the night), did you ever just resort to כופין אותו (in the old fashioned sense?)

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  14. Kol haKavod. You're right, it definitely helps to be reminded of all the successes, and all of your, and others', hard work and creativity

    Now that's real artistry, calling his mother! Whatever works... he asked for it. It only drives home the point: Would that man have wanted his own mother to be stuck in the situation he forced on his wife, or would he have done anything possible to help her?

  15. Former Allentowner-
    Wow, that's quite some story. I wonder, though, what the bet din's view of it is.

    Nope, never had that kind of fun. I don't even threaten it, because you can't threaten that unless you are sure you will deliver.


  16. the bet din "denies" that he remarried (or shall i say, ignores the facts. their hands are tied by a policy (that, i understand, is often overridden if a party has "protektzia").

    actually, short of giving the husband a ptur without giving the wife her ptur, what can the bet din do? and what help would that really be, anyway? of course, they can tell the ex wife to stop delaying the civil case, and / or set up a (one party represented) din torah, which the ex wife wont listen to anyway! or change their foolish policy!

    by the way, this particular case has nothing directly to do with any (former) allentown resident.

  17. F.A.-
    What is the policy we're talking about? I'm familiar with some of their policies in get cases, and they seem pretty sensible to me.