Women’s Rights Leaders Outraged As Conference on Agunot Canceled

Jewish women’s rights leaders are reeling after Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi canceled a conference of prominent rabbis that was to deal with the issue of women whose husbands refuse to give them divorce papers. An agunah, which literally means a “chained” woman, is one whose husband refuses to give her a get, a document she needs under Jewish religious law for a divorce to be final. If she does not obtain a get but later remarries, any subsequent children she has are mamzers — or bastards. This label carries a harsh stigma in religious circles and limits who the children can marry under Jewish law.

According to halachah, a man cannot be coerced into giving his wife a get, and in some cases men have refused to give their wives gets for years, sometimes issuing the documents only in exchange for sizable ransoms.

The closed-door conference, arranged by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar and the International Council of Jewish Women, would have been the first such forum for a large number of heads of beit dins, the local Jewish courts that oversee the get process, from around the world.

The conference was set for Nov. 7-8 in Jerusalem, and 27 of 56 rabbis invited to the conference had accepted the invitation. On Thursday, they were notified of its cancellation via fax from Rabbi Eliahu Ben-Dahan, director of Israel’s rabbinical courts.

A fax obtained by JTA said Amar had decided to cancel the conference “due to petitions that came to him both from Israel and outside of Israel requesting its cancellation.”

Those close to the situation say most of the pressure came from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a 96-year-old Ashkenazi rabbi who many consider the most authoritative in the fervently Orthodox world. Elyashiv could not be reached for comment and Amar’s office would not tell JTA who had pressured him to quash the event.

“It’s clear that the ultra-Orthodox leaders in Israel have been pressuring him, and it was too much to bear,” Sharon Shenhav of the International Council of Jewish Women, who worked closely with Amar over the past two years to plan the conference, told JTA. “Shamefully, at the last minute he canceled.”

In recent days, several outside groups had been lobbying rabbis not to attend. One of the most outspoken was the Rabbinical Alliance of America, a fervently Orthodox group that claims to have 750 member rabbis, according to spokesman Rabbi Yehuda Levin. Levin left Nov. 2 for Israel to protest the agunah conference as well as the upcoming WorldPride gay pride march in Jerusalem, which also is in doubt due to threats of violence from the fervently Orthodox community.

Levin said he had contacted a number of the rabbis invited and had convinced several not to show up.

“There is no problem with agunah,” he told JTA before the conference was canceled. “The reason they’re doing this is because there is big pressure, a societal pressure of feminism, in which they paint the Orthodox as archaic and out of touch and put the Orthodox on the defensive.”

Holding the conference, he said, would have sent “the message to rabbis worldwide that we are under the thumb of the feminists.”

Rabbi Leib Landesman, head of a Jewish court in Monsey, N.Y., was invited but declined to attend because he saw the conference as an exercise in futility.

None of the speakers was “anyone who can even make a small dent in the issue of agunah,” he told JTA. “Those behind the convention mean well, but if there is a lack of astuteness — and it’s quite evident that there’s no one there that really counts — then you can’t even make a slight dent.”

Landesman called Amar a “guest speaker, or the guest of honor, which adds some legitimacy,” but said the conference would have been run by “some people who want to score points or do what is called political correctness. But that’s not going to solve the problem of agunah.”

Landesman did not deny that the problem exists but said it was too complicated for a sweeping solution, and rather should be examined locally, on a case-by-case basis.

Agunah activists were shocked and disappointed by the cancellation.

Rivka Haut, an author who has helped agunot navigate the Jewish court system in the United States for the past 20 years, had been working with some of the rabbis who planned to attend to help them prepare their presentations.

“I was looking forward to this conference,” said Haut, who has been working with 10 to 15 agunot, including some women who have been in that limbo for more than a decade. “Not that I thought they would end the agunah agony, but I did hope they would begin the process of deciding how to free as many women as possible.”

The problem, she told JTA, is that some parts of the Jewish court system are corrupt and heavily weighted in men’s favor, “but the Orthodox world lets the batei din continue with no monitoring and no accountability. We were hopeful that this conference would start the talking.”

It’s unclear what will happen next. Shenhav said she spent Thursday calling some of the rabbis who had agreed to come to Jerusalem to inform them of the cancellation.

“They were shocked and embarrassed and shamed,” she said, noting that they hoped to speak with Amar amid “some hint that he might retreat.” As of last Friday, however, Amar had not backtracked.

Some of the rabbis scheduled to attend already had arrived in Israel. It’s possible that those rabbis will still meet, but without the sanction of the chief rabbinate or the religious court system.

Others were left in the lurch. Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, a long-time agunah-rights advocate, said last Friday that he would go to Jerusalem to see if some meetings could still take place.

“My wife said to me, ‘Now you should certainly go,’ ” Blau said. “It would be a statement of support that shows that this is an important problem and people should be dealing with it. We shouldn’t give in.”

Blu Greenberg, a founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, said a few random meetings in lieu of a conference with the chief rabbi would “not be satisfactory,” but added that the cancellation could prove to be a blessing in disguise.

“I think we are at the next step already, which is that as a community we’re going to express disappointment and let-down,” she said. Although much of the community was not even aware of the conference, “they’ll be aware now,” she said. “That will serve as an important counterpressure.”

“Until now, all of the pressure has come from the ultra-Orthodox,” she said, but with the cancellation, “people of good will will take notice of this and will not be quiet.”

JTA correspondent Dina Kraft contributed to this report from Tel Aviv.

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