The tragedy of agunot — women unable to obtain a Jewish divorce — remains a seemingly unsolvable problem within halacha [Jewish law] that has left too many women in an emotional, legal and financial black hole.
Adding to the problem is the absence of data. In Israel, estimates of 10,000 agunot have been reported by The Wall Street Journal and Jerusalem Post, in contrast to claims by Agudath Israel that there are 180 in the Jewish state, and remarkably, an equal number of men who are being refused divorces by their recalcitrant wives.
An article in The Jewish Week several years ago found that the Beit Din [religious court] affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America handles approximately 350 divorces annually with less than 10 divorces unresolved. That relatively small number is thanks to the use of an RCA-approved pre-nuptial agreement that, going forward, has been a Salk vaccine, of sorts, inoculating young couples against this conundrum that has haunted Jewish divorce through the ages.
When it comes to numbers, activists say that “even one is too many,” but how many are there? According to the new North American Study of Agunot, there have been 462 agunot over the last five years in the U.S. and Canada. The study, said to be the first of its kind and initiated by Barbara Zakheim, founder of the Greater Washington Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, is to be commended if for no other reason than providing greater clarity to the issue.
The study did not interview individuals but surveyed 70 community-based, social service Jewish organizations. Only 20 responded, not because the other organizations were hostile but simply because they said they had no agunot cases about which to respond, the study acknowledged. Despite the number of 462, the organizations could only provide hard data on 117 cases.
If rabbinical courts have trouble untangling these cases, the study found that civil divorce can be thorny, too, with 34 percent of agunot still awaiting a divorce in American courts. In 70 percent of civil cases, agunot have been granted child custody.
“There is no foundation in the Talmudic sources for a halachic solution,” Zakheim observed, but “there is certainly no foundation either that agunot … must live in poverty,” with 23 percent reporting an income of less than $20,000.
Despite the apparent success of the RCA-approved pre-nup within the Modern Orthodox community, Zakheim told The Jewish Week that the study didn’t differentiate or analyze the vastly different approaches taken toward agunot by the various communities within Orthodoxy, ranging from Modern to haredi and chasidic.
Some rabbinic courts are insisting that women give up their right to litigate in civil court or face a seruv (contempt citation), according to agunah advocates Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff. (See Opinion, page 26.) This puts the onus on the woman who, Haut and Aranoff note, faces “public humiliation and ostracism at a time when the community should be mobilizing to support her.”
The inherent imbalance results from the fact that, according to halacha, the husband must give the get (religious divorce) willingly. So, Haut and Aranoff write, “rabbis try to appease him at the wife’s expense.”
As Barbara Zakheim noted, “There is still no Orthodox systemic solution to freeing agunot. While some rabbis have taken a commendable proactive role … many others have exhibited an apparent lack of compassion.”
If even one rabbi lacks compassion, that’s one too many.