Agunah Activists Savor Positive Steps but Say Much Work is Still to Be Done

They have been spit at, punched, ridiculed and cursed as whores.

But the Orthodox feminists who have endured these insults in their efforts to bring the plight of women trapped in unwanted marriages to the attention of the Orthodox community had cause for some rejoicing recently.

The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of 1,000 Orthodox rabbis, took steps at its annual convention this month to try to prevent husbands from using a get, or religious divorce, as an instrument of blackmail to extort money, child custody and other concessions from their estranged wives.

The group unanimously approved a resolution requiring the use of prenuptial agreements in all marriage ceremonies. These agreements provide financial incentives for estranged husbands to grant a divorce.

The RCA’s resolution also calls for synagogues to ostracize recalcitrant spouses who refuse to appear before a beit din, or religious court.

Though these measures are significant, the activists caution that there is still a long way to go before Orthodox rabbis are using every halachic, or Jewishly legal, tool at their disposal to ensure that women do not become agunot — chained in often abusive marriages because their husbands are unwilling to grant them a divorce.

The reforms needed, these activists added, are often not even matters of halachah. Rather, they include issues such as the absence of reliable court records and the natural empathy that male dayanim, or judges, feel for the husbands in most cases.

Thanks in large part to these self-described “Torah feminists,” the plight of agunot is working its way, in slow but important increments, up the agenda of Orthodox Jewish organizations and individual, influential Orthodox rabbis.

This year, in fact, has been dubbed by an international coalition of Jewish women’s groups to be the year of the agunah.

Educational efforts are under way in the United States, Canada, Israel, England and Australia and a special push is being made to encourage men to yield on divorces during the 10 Days of Penitence that fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

WOMEN EYED SUSPICIOUSLY BY YESHIVA WORLD

The women organizing these efforts are viewed suspiciously, at best, in the yeshiva world, and their influence is seen as both a positive and negative force.

“In certain cases, they have been quite helpful; in some situations, detrimental,” said Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, the widely respected head of two religious courts: the beit din of the Rabbinical Council of America and the court of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.

“Sometimes there’s a terrific backlash” when the activist women speak out, he said. “The men don’t want to be pilloried.”

Norma Baumel Joseph of Montreal is one of the activist pioneers who had rabbis telling her 15 years ago that only one or two women were in the position of being agunot.

One rabbi compared the problem to a “minor toothache that will go away,” she said. But it did not go away.

In North America there are believed to be more than 1,000 Jewish women being held captive by recalcitrant husbands. In Israel, estimates range between 5,000 and 16,000 agunot. And around the world an unknown number suffer.

Rivka Haut, an editor and longtime Orthodox feminist, said that “every beit din agrees that the number is growing.”

Today the rabbis acknowledge that the problem is widespread.

We are “extremely sensitive to the plight of women in igun, women chained by recalcitrant, extorting husbands,” said Schwartz.

“Every effort is being made to try and alleviate this problem,” he said.

But Baumel Joseph and other activists say that change is slow and much remains to be done.

Many batei din should be reformed totally, the activists said, because corruption and insensitivity to women are widespread, and the courts’ practices work against women.

WOMEN AT A DISADVANTAGE IN COURT

Most women are at a disadvantage from the beginning because their husbands generally have the yeshiva background that enables them to understand the language and practices of the beit din, while the women do not.

And the husband often knows the judges personally, while the wife may not. “Many men take the women to the rabbi of their synagogue, or their rosh yeshiva (yeshiva principal), where there is definite bias,” said Haut.

On top of that, “the rabbis have a natural empathy for the husband as a man, as a father, that they do not have for the wife.”

And then there is the blackmail women sometimes face not just from their husbands, but from the courts as well.

“There are rabbis who use their position as a dayan on a beit din to line their pockets. They ask women for money to do things that they should be doing anyway,” said Haut.

“Most women haven’t got a clue when they enter the process,” she said.

Added to this entangled labyrinth which few women can easily negotiate is the fact that with many of the ad hoc batei din, called zablas, which are springing up in increasing numbers, there is no system of accountability.

Rabbis “just appoint themselves, just set up a beit din and no one really oversees them,” said Haut. “The rabbis have to begin to feel accountable to the Jewish community.”

Record-keeping also poses a serious problem.

According to Susan Aranoff, a professor of economics who, with Haut and others, founded Agunah, Inc. a decade ago, “there are Orthodox batei din which conduct proceedings with no record, no stenographer, no tape (recording.)

“How do you appeal a process when there are no records?” asked Aranoff.

Added Haut, “No beit din keeps computerized records. This is something we’ve been asking for years. In kashrut, in every other aspect (of Jewish law) they do, but here records are not kept well.

“These are not halachic problems. The problems in the beit din system are caused by an abuse of halachah, and it’s almost always the woman who suffers,” said Haut.

“We lay the blame squarely on the rabbis’ shoulders,” said Baumel Joseph.

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