What do you do when the religious rules by which you live your life — by which you stand firm, which define you, your family, your history, your beliefs, your routines, everything about you — come up against with the undeniable fact that the world has changed in ways that affect you?
What if, for example, you are an observant Jewish woman who wants a divorce, but whose husband refuses to give you one?
Rabbi Daniel Wolf, the assistant director of the International Beit Din — and also a teacher at Yeshivat Har Etzion, where he has taught 1983 and from which he now is on sabbatical — will discuss issues about agunot, along with questions that result when halacha bangs up against modern life, at Congregation Rinat Yisrael on Tuesday. (See box.)
Rabbi Wolf, who is spending his sabbatical in Riverdale, said that although he has been involved in questions about agunot, until recently that interest has been more theoretical than practical. (Agunot are “chained women,” who are shackled in marriages that realistically have ended or become untenable, but whose husbands refuse to get them a get, the document that an observant man must give to his wife for the marriage to end in divorce. Gittin go only in one direction, from a man to a woman, so a would-be ex-wife is at her still-husband’s mercy.)
Rabbi Wolf has been interested in some time in issues where modern life open new halachic questions. He has written two teshovot — answers to halachic questions — about “cohanim visiting concentration camps and flying over cemeteries in Europe,” he said. The question is asked because cohanim — descendants of the ancient priestly caste — are not allowed to come into contact with dead bodies; the modern twist is caused by the existence of both Nazi death camps and airplanes.
“The chumra” — the stringent interpretation that demands rigorous observance — “isn’t crazy, but I think there is enough to be lenient,” Rabbi Wolf said. “But it’s not obvious. There is a lot of stuff up in the air.”
Now, Rabbi Wolf — whose smicha is from Yeshiva University — finds himself interested in trying to help agunot.
“The International Beit Din has been interested in helping find solutions,” he said. “Rabbi Krauss” — that’s Rabbi Simcha Krauss, the court’s founder and head — has been pushing the envelope.
A first step is to see if the wedding itself wasn’t kosher; that would mean that the bride and groom weren’t really married in the first place. That way, there would be no marriage to dissolve, and so no divorce would be necessary (or even possible).
“For some of the easier heterim” — rabbinic allowances that apply halachic solutions to permit applicants to do the things they need to do — “they check videos and photographic evidence to make sure that there weren’t any kosher aidim” — valid witnesses. There was a time, he said, when “in the chuppot of the weaker Jewish community, very often the edim are not there.
“Those were very easy.
“There also were some others that were slightly more controversial. Was there some fault in the husband? Some psychological issues? Or homosexuality?
“And then there’s the question of mekach taout” — basically, buyer’s remorse. “How quickly does the wife have to object?” To realize that there is something wrong with her new husband, who is not in reality what he presented himself as being under the chuppah, and therefore is not the man who she thought she married, and therefore is not her husband. “How soon a wife has to object is a matter of controversy and conflicting opinion,” Rabbi Wolf said. “And there is no real standard.”
Moreover, he continued, “there is no standardization, either here or in Israel.”
The case he plans to discuss at Rinat centers on a young wife whose husband is in a permanent vegetative state. Can the wife be divorced and remarry, given that he cannot give her a get and so free her? “This is something that really happened,” Rabbi Wolf said. In the end, the rabbinic court gave the woman a divorce, but it was controversial.
The problem of agunot, at least in some parts of the Orthodox world, has lessened now that couples have begun to make pre-nuptial agreements, careful to ensure that they are within the bounds of halacha. Before pre-nups, there were conditional marriages. “There were very broad conditions that were bandied about and rejected by halachich authorities in the 19th century; more recently, in the 20th century, you could write it with a very narrow condition.” But that wasn’t widely adopted, probably, he said, because “the Conservatives proposed it.” Now, though, pre-nups are common.
All of this is necessary because society has changed. “Solutions are different when the divorce rate is 3 or 4 percent,” as it used to be, “or 30 and 40 percent,” as it is now, Rabbi Wolf said. “The balance is between keeping the Jewish family and allowing divorce, and it’s the women who get stuck in the middle.” That was fairly acceptable when so few women were affected by it, but “now there are so many of them.
“Even when divorce is on the table, only a small number of them get into an aguna or recalcitrant husband situation,” Rabbi Wolf said. Most about-to-be-divorced men give their wives a get. “But that has to be weighed against the Jewish family. Many of the teshuvot and rabbinic positions were formed in an earlier age.
“Also,” he added, “one of the problems is that the precedents were baked into the halachich process when the Jewish community had various levers they could use to force husband to give a get.
“People say that poskim and gedolim didn’t avail themselves” of the kinds of decision their successors sometimes make now, but that’s because “they didn’t have to. They could force a get. So not only was the number of divorces much lower, but there were fewer recalcitrant husbands. Excommunication was much more effective.
“Halacha by its nature looks back at classical sources, but the world has changed, and the power of the Jewish community has changed.”
Unlike in Israel, in the United States, he added, “Jewish courts have no power. And people can leave their communities, even if they want to be a part of an Orthodox community. People can just disappear.” Although, he added, there have been a number of periods during Jewish history when it was possible simply to disappear.
Rabbi Wolf has a background in economics as well as in halacha; much of the work that he does involves economic questions, seen through a halachic lens; he’s done a great deal of thinking about the relationship between interest — ribbit — and inflation.
Ask him about it on Tuesday! Or consult with him — he is an expert on business arrangements, and loves the challenge of a good halachich argument.
Who: Rabbi Daniel Wolf
What: Will talk about “Get Zikkui — Effecting a Divorce in the Husband’s Place”
Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael,
389 W. Englewood Ave., Teaneck
When: On Tuesday, December 25, at 8:45 a.m.
For more information: Call (201) 837-2795 or go to www.rinat.org.