For someone who is an agunah [a woman whose husband will not grant her a Jewish divorce] life can be very difficult. However, I am deeply disappointed in Rabbi Shammai Englemayer’s Jan. 7 article that severely condemns the Orthodox rabbinate for “steadfastly refusing” to resolve the agunah problem. He makes no mention of the extraordinary success of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Prenuptial Agreement and the Orthodox Union’s Synagogue Sanctions Against Recalcitrant Spouses. While Rabbi Engelmayer dismisses synagogue sanctions as “comical,” in my 18 years of serving as a get administrator I have seen them work in numerous situations. Rabbi Englemayer writes that Orthodox rabbis do not seem to care about the agunah problem, yet he seems to be unaware of the countless hours of pro bono work invested by Orthodox rabbis to help “chained wives” to the extent of even putting our lives on hold and even at risk to help such women. Rabbi Engelmayer, as a Conservative rabbi, may not agree with these solutions, but to accuse the Orthodox rabbinate of not caring simply because we do not agree with him is simply inappropriate and uncalled for. The mainstream Orthodox rabbinate does not subscribe to Rabbi Engelmayer’s belief that “where there is a rabbinic will there is a rabbinic way.” This appears to be a primary difference between Conservative and mainstream Orthodox beliefs. Simply put, simple decency dictates that Orthodox Jews should not be condemned for adhering to their beliefs.
Rabbi Engelmayer’s article contains other assertions that Orthodox rabbis do not agree with. He fails to mention that it is not only a female problem but a man’s problem as well. I currently have five cases in my caseload of unfortunate men whose wives are refusing to receive a get (a Heteir Meah Rabbanim is not easily obtainable in the Modern Orthodox community). His assertion that women cannot sue for a divorce except in “a few extremely rare exceptions” is simply inaccurate. A full discussion of what the mainstream Orthodox community considers to be acceptable and unacceptable solutions to the agunah problem is available at www.koltorah.org or by doing a Google search using the keywords Jachter agunah.
I look forward to future discussion of the agunah problem that is respectful, balanced, and accurate. Your readers and those of us who take the agunah problem very seriously and do whatever we can to help agunot deserve better.
Rabbi Engelmayer responds: I did not single out the Orthodox rabbinate because I am a “Conservative rabbi,” but because, as the column states, it “is the only rabbinate capable of taking a lead on resolving this disgrace.” A matter of this magnitude, which involves such complicated issues as the legitimacy of remarriage and of mamzeirut (the status of children born out of forbidden unions), cannot be resolved without Orthodox sanction. To do so otherwise would fracture the Jewish nation beyond repair (creating “two people,” to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg). That is a fact of Jewish life that cannot be denied.
That being said, Rabbi Jachter urges people to surf to www.koltorah.org for a “full discussion” of what “mainstream Orthodoxy” thinks on the issue.
I suggest that readers visit this website: www.agunahinternational.com. Rabbi Jachter, I would imagine, does not include it, its sponsor Agunah International, or Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, z”l, and his colleagues as part of “mainstream Orthodoxy,” which is much too flippantly dismissive of them and their efforts on behalf of “chained women.”
Rabbi Jachter also states, “The mainstream Orthodox rabbinate does not subscribe to Rabbi Engelmayer’s belief that ‘where there is a rabbinic will there is a rabbinic way.'” That, however, is not the “belief” of a “Conservative rabbi,” but of the Orthodox rabbis who took courageous stands to resolve an issue that halachic decisors through the ages have themselves taken bold steps to resolve.
Is Rabbi Jachter suggesting that Rabbi David Halevi (the TaZ) or Rabbi Chaim ben Jacob Abulafia (the Sh’vut Yaakov), both of whom were cited in my column, were “Conservative rabbis,” or somehow out of step with the “mainstream”?
That would be surprising since Rabbi Jachter notes on a portion of his website that the Beth Din of America used responsa from both pre-Enlightenment decisors in dealing with the potential agunah problems in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Did not the TaZ rule that unchaining an agunah was so important that rabbinic authorities could even rely on otherwise questionable minority opinions? Did not the Sh’vut Yaakov say that a Bet Din could convene even on a Shabbat to hear testimony that could lead to “unchaining” an agunah?
Indeed, did not Maimonides, following the direction set by the Sages of Blessed Memory, rule that one witness was good enough to allow a woman to remarry, or that hearsay evidence was permissible in such a case, or that even circumstantial evidence was valid in order to break her chains? (See Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Divorce, 13:29.) Was he a “Conservative rabbi”?
I see rulings such as those of the TaZ, the Sh’vut Yaakov and the Rambam as examples of where there is a halachic will there is a halachic way.
Rabbi Jachter also wonders whether I am aware of the “Igun” problem – men whose wives refuse to accept their divorces. Under Jewish law, a wife must accept her get for the divorce to be valid.
Yet he also cites the solution halacha proposed to that problem – the signatures of 100 rabbis on several continents on a document freeing the man from his “chains.” He says such a document is hard to come by; I know of at least once case in which those signatures were obtained.
I also am certain that most “chained women” would appreciate a similar solution being found for them.