Israeli Women’s Groups Meet with Rabbis to Discuss Agunot

Israel’s two chief rabbis have held a rare meeting with a women’s rights delegation pressing for solutions to the problem of agunot — women who cannot get a divorce because their husbands refuse to grant one or because the husbands cannot be located.

After talking with the two rabbis on Monday, members of the women’s delegation said they were heartened by the meeting but that it represented only the beginning of the work it will take to solve the agunah problem.

More than 10,000 women are in legal limbo in Israel, where there are no civil divorces and where the dissolution of a marriage must adhere to strict interpretations of Jewish law.

According to these laws, a Jewish woman cannot obtain a divorce, or get, without the permission of her husband.

“There are greedy, vindictive men who have decided that they can withhold their consent and blackmail their wives,” said Sharon Shenhav, legal adviser to Na’amat, one of the women’s groups represented at the meeting with the chief rabbis.

The group is part of a recently formed International Coalition for Agunah Rights.

The coalition has declared the Jewish year 5754 as the International Year of the Agunah, reflecting an intensive effort to reform what are perceived as unjust and discriminatory divorce proceedings in rabbinical courts worldwide.

According to a publication by the Israel Women’s Network, another coalition member, “thousands of Jewish women are suffering as a result of heartless insistence on outmoded interpretations of halacha (Jewish law), long drawn-out court deliberations, the refusal of husbands to grant the get even when the court has decreed it, and the courts’ failure to utilize halachically permitted coercion on such ‘recalcitrant’ husbands.”

DELEGATION ‘VERY PLEASED’

The members of the Israeli coalition won an audience with the chief rabbis following a small demonstration last week in front of Hechal Shlomo, the Jerusalem headquarters of the Chief Rabbinate.

They had sought the meeting since the top rabbinic officials — Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron — were elected to 10-year terms last February.

Alice Shalvi, head of the Women’s Network, was guardedly optimistic about the meeting with the rabbis.

She told Israel Television the women’s delegation was “very pleased” about the “collaboration between the two sides — the victims, on the one hand, and those who can provide the solution, on the other.

“But obviously a great deal of work remains to be done and we can’t just go home and sit quietly,” she said.

For his part, Lau said he was sympathetic to the plight of the agunot and hopeful that problems could be solved following the establishment of a committee to review the situation.

The two chief rabbis asked the women to refrain from holding public demonstrations while the issue is being studied.

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