Don’t their hearts break when women tell them of their chained and, at times, abusive situations? Is there no compassion on their end?
That was my question for Blu Greenberg, a longtime advocate for plight of so-called chained women, or agunot, and a founder of Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
“Their hearts do break, they feel tremendous compassion,” Greenberg said. “They wring their hands. That’s why they support prenuptial agreements and rallies, but they’ll do anything but touch upon halacha, and that’s where their failure is. We must reinterpret halacha in a way that will be just and humane and a credit to Jewish law rather than an embarrassment to Jewish law.”
The “they” in question are the Orthodox rabbis who advocates say have been sluggish to pursue remedies for agunot, women whose husbands will not grant them a religious writ of divorce. Absent such a writ, known as a get, agunot are prevented from remarrying and carrying on with their lives.
On June 24, an Aguna Summit was organized in New York by JOFA and the Tikvah Center for Law & Jewish Civilization at New York University at which participants advocated for systemic solutions to the problem of agunot. The dilemma, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz said, stems from a conflict between religious law and morality. “It’s a shonda,” Dershowitz said. “Changing times require adaption and we must adapt halacha to rules of morality.”
Advocates for agunot have been raising this alarm for years, to little effect (see here and here). Greenberg said the difference this time around is the strong cohort of rabbis calling for a shift in the way the agunah issue has been framed, from a tragic situation to a human rights injustice. Greenberg said this was the first time that such an esteemed group of rabbis — including David Bigman, Aryeh Klapper and Shlomo Riskin — have come together with policy makers and activists to call for systemic solutions and galvanize community support for a permanent change, not a piecemeal patch-up.
Rabbi Adam Mintz, who moderated one session at the summit, noted that legal barriers to resolving the agunah issue is no excuse for the failure to find a legitimate resolution. Other rabbis echoed that line. “Tragically, there are rabbis that won’t, and though there is a clear halachic way, they refuse to use it,” Riskin said. “There are rabbanim that are so wedded to their ‘sepharim’ [books] that they can’t see people suffering. This is a stain on all of us.”
Among the solutions presented was the mandatory signing prenuptial agreements and a call for the Knesset to assign the responsibility to a religious court to invalidate marriages.
Greenberg spoke of the excitement brewing outside of the conference room. “A lot was happening at the coffee breaks and in between speakers. One rabbi said ‘I would sign on if so and so would.’ Another one said I’m not a dayan [judge], but I would certainly get my community behind it. And two young rabbis remarked that they were not well-trained enough but would want to be apart of this change and steadfastly believe it should happen. There was a tremendous amount of rabbinic consensus that we have to get our community behind this.”