Orthodox Prenuptials Would Save Couples from Future Grief, Rabbi Says

A group of influential Orthodox rabbis has thrown its weight behind prenuptial agreements in an effort to persuade more young couples to sign such documents before they marry.

Eleven roshei yeshiva, or senior professors of Talmud, at the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University, have signed on to a statement urging greater use of pre- marriage agreements as “a critical step in purging our community of the distressful problem of the modern-day Agunah,” or women “chained” to dead marriages by husbands who refuse to give them a religious divorce.

The prenuptial agreement, widely endorsed by centrist Orthodox authorities in 1994, commits a husband and wife to seek arbitration from a Beit Din, or religious court, or in the event that they want to dissolve their marriage, and fines the husband a significant amount — usually $100 — for each day that he refuses to go.

The rising rate of divorce and the growing number of cases in which husbands withhold the get, or Jewish divorce, as a bartering chip that sparked the need for the development of the prenuptial agreement. Now the rabbis’ statement says, there is a need for its wider implementation.

“We are painfully aware of the problems faced by individuals tied to undesired marriages. Many of these problems could have been avoided had the couple signed a halachically and legally valid prenuptial agreement at the time of their marriage,” they wrote in their statement, which was first developed at a December 1999 conference.

Orthodox feminist leader Blu Greenberg welcomed the statement.

While these Orthodox rabbis haven’t publicly articulated the seriousness of the agunah issue before, “maybe in the hope that the problem would go away or because it was an embarrassment, moving this on to the communal leadership agenda is an important step forward,” said Greenberg, president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The prenuptial agreement is already being widely used, according to Rabbi Robert Hirt, a vice president of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University.

The roshei yeshiva hesitated to endorse the agreement earlier because they weren’t sure how it would be accepted and wanted to gauge its public use. “In halachah there’s a rule that an enactment that cannot meet with the acceptance of the community will not necessarily stand,” Hirt said.

“With the passage of time, we’ve seen a receptivity on the part of faculty, parents and young couples, and now there’s a desire to accelerate its use.”

Members of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America were surveyed a couple of years ago, Hirt said, and about 40 percent said that they used the prenuptial agreement. A small minority of Orthodox rabbis require that it be signed before officiating at a wedding.

Greenberg urged the rabbis to go further in addressing the issue of agunot.

“A priority should be to find a halachic way to eliminate the suffering and the injustice,” she said.

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