LONDON, July 12 (JTA) — A visit to Britain by a U.S. rabbi involved in the plight of Orthodox women whose husbands refuse to grant them religious divorces has provoked a bitter controversy within the British Orthodox community. The agunot, sometimes referred to as “chained women,” may be divorced according to civil law, but they lack a get, which is a religious bill of divorce. During his visit, Moshe Morgenstern raised the hackles of the Orthodox establishment when he secretly married one British agunah — a 32-year-old woman who received a civil divorce in 1992 — while raising expectations among other agunot that a religious solution would be found to “free” them all. Not only do almost all Orthodox rabbis refuse to marry agunot, but most Orthodox Jews regard the children of any subsequent union by such women as mamzerim — or bastards — who according to Orthodox application of Jewish law, are permitted to marry only other mamzerim. This practice does not apply, however, to the subsequent children of the former husbands who have refused to grant their wives a religious divorce. Women who find themselves trapped in this marital twilight — at the end of one marriage and unable to embark on another — frequently complain that their former husbands demand vast sums of money for a get. But Morgenstern told an audience of 200 in London that his New York-based Beit Din — or religious court — has already annulled 280 marriages of agunot, of whom 100 have remarried in ceremonies at which he had officiated. He said that if his two-year-old Beit Din decides that a marriage is dead, “we will give a ‘get’ on behalf of the husband.” Such an arrangement, he insisted, is “a million percent halachically correct.” But British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks does not agree. After meeting with the American rabbi, he described Morgenstern’s actions as “illegal” and a “breach” of religious law. Sacks said he had decided to meet with Morgenstern because he would “leave no stone unturned in seeking a solution to the problem of agunah.” “We agonize over the plight of agunot,” Sacks said. “However, no court can legalize the illegal.” Two initiatives aimed at alleviating the plight of agunot have run into problems this month. The first, proposed by Sacks, would have involved couples signing a pre-nuptial agreement that would commit both partners to mediation and, if necessary, arbitration by a religious court in the event of a marriage breakdown. This was dealt a fatal blow, however, when a British judge decided that such a formula was unenforceable. Ruling in the case of an Orthodox couple, Mr. Justice Wall said that a prenuptial agreement that discussed the steps to be taken after separation or divorce was inconsistent with the “concept of marriage as a lifelong union.” Another attempt by Emeritus Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits to alleviate the problem was thwarted this month when the government decided to delay the implementation of planned divorce law reforms. The legislation, which was to have come into effect next year, would have contained a clause, proposed by Jakobovits, that would have withheld a civil divorce until religious requirements for divorce were met. The legislation would have prevented the remarriage — according to civil or religious rites — of husbands who refuse to grant their estranged wives a get. No new date has been set for enacting the reforms, and Jakobovits is now attempting to have his amendment attached to other family law legislation.
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