Unchained melody: A cri de coeur

Unchained melody: A cri de coeur

For hundreds of years the issue of chained women, agunot, women whose husbands refuse to grant them divorces (gets), has simmered on the back burner, an awful secret often linked to domestic violence and worse. Thousands are affected by this issue, and suffer the indignity of never being able to marry again — as long as their "ex"-husbands hold them hostage to untenable conditions — like demanding total custody and all marital assets, no alimony, plus payment of thousands (in some cases millions) of dollars. And if a wife or her family can’t meet the recalcitrant husband’s conditions, she remains an agunah, and he, with a technical leniency called "heter meah rabbanim," permission from a hundred rabbis, can marry someone else.

That’s extortion. It is astonishing that such an abhorrently unfair and medieval system can exist in Western civilization in the ‘1st century.

The battle against it has been going on for at least 40 years. I know. I was an agunah for six years and was sent by Rabbi Moishe Feinstein to civil court for a divorce. When my decree was overturned because the court held my ex in contempt, Rabbi Feinstein helped create the Silver Get Law. It’s far from perfect, but with it, women stand a chance. A few years ago Rabbi Feinstein’s own followers at the Agudath Israel campaigned to do away with his law and, luckily, failed.

Women have waited patiently for centuries, and Orthodox women’s organizations have operated respectfully to find a halachic solution. When asked at the first Edah conference in 1996 why battered women couldn’t be granted gets (divorces) by a Jewish court, a well-respected rabbi described as "the Great White Hope for agunot" replied, "I ain’t Santa Claus and I ain’t giving you no cookies" in front of 400 gasping witnesses. And now, with the cancellation of the planned conference in Jerusalem on agunot, these women’s needs have once again been dismissed with impunity and callousness.

Why was the conference canceled? Because the 96-year-old posek hador, the halachic decider, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv of Jerusalem, was pressured to do so. By whom and with what weapon he was bludgeoned? Only God knows for sure. As Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, an advocate for agunot who went to Israel for the conference, asked, "Why are they afraid to talk?"

The main issue facing this conference was the coordination of batei din and an attempt to set some judicial standards and oversight. Maybe, just maybe, that was the real problem. Imagine, if an "authority" would be established to look over the shoulders of these independent, arbitrary courts to determine whether or not they meet basic criteria — like not being allowed to accept "donations" (private or otherwise) from recalcitrant parties of the first or second parts. Would that have had something to do with the cancellation?

Dr. Ellis Rivkin, a brilliant historian who writes about hidden revolutions and the transfer of Jewish authority, notes that the all-encompassing mandate of Jewish authority in the Middle Ages was bound up in religious sanctions. It had its own rules and took care of its own communities, using religious law even on civil matters. Jewishly, the system of law was underwritten by "divine command," and authority reached, as Rivkin puts it, "into every nook and cranny of Jewish society." That meant that "all struggles, no matter how secular in nature [like theft or damage of property, marriage and divorce] involved religious ideologies…."

So how does one change things? According to Rivkin, "when profound historical changes altered the structure of society … large numbers of Jews challenged the very structure of authority then prevailing. One example he gives of this change in authority is the rise of chasidism against the mitnagdim. It was a truly ugly battle. In fact, as he says, the ability to use compulsion inevitably leads to forceful repression of all those who questioned authority, no matter how justified their complaints.

Perhaps this is what Jewish women and some well meaning rabbis experienced this week-a heavy-handed rabbinic attempt to shut down "the feminists" once and for all. Yehuda Levin of the Rabbinical Alliance of America was quoted by JTA as saying he pressured rabbis not to participate. He added, "The reason they are doing this [that they would participate] is because there is big pressure, a societal pressure of feminism, in which they paint the Orthodox as archaic and out of touch…." Levin, who was dismissed by a source at the Agudath Israel in New York as a "well-meaning loose cannon," may have done all Jewish women a favor. He gave us a clarion call.

There is no time like the present for honest and humane men and women to wrest control of our daughters’ and granddaughters’ destinies from those who have abused the bet din system in this country and in Israel. We should immediately organize all the disparate groups fighting for agunot around the world and strike while the spotlight is aimed at this patently unfair squelching of a conference that might have led to major solutions that conform to halachic guidelines. This dismissal of women’s basic right to live unfettered lives and to condemn some of them to lives of violence or poverty, childlessness, loneliness, and worse should galvanize all of us to rise up and force a change in the system.

Now is the time to demand the abolition of "kinyan" (a ritual act of purchase) as a condition of marriage, to demand that batei din be allowed to declare marriages over and issue annulments, and to create prenuptial agreements that have teeth in courts of law and make women equal partners who can initiate divorce.

Will it happen? Who knows? Haredi attitudes toward women are hard to change, and they can be cruel and entrenched. Years ago at a haredi funeral in Borough Park, two leading chasidic rabbis arose to deliver the anticipated eulogy. But instead of a eulogy, each delivered a harangue upon the deceased’s daughters, blaming them for their father’s demise because they hadn’t yet married. There were literally hundreds of people packed into the hall, many of them women — as usual, hidden behind the mechitza, the curtain that traditionally separates the sexes. But suddenly, contrary to custom, a loud hissing was heard to emanate from the women’s area. The more the men repeated the charge, the louder the women hissed to drown out the outrage.

It’s time for haredi women to start hissing again and educating their daughters about what is in store for them if things don’t change for pious Jewish women. But hissing alone isn’t enough. If we keep hitting stonewalls, we will have to take the fight to the streets instead. Imagine what a chillul HaShem that would be. It might even get the job done.