No one really knows what goes on between two people in a marriage, not even the two people. In a nation of broken marriages, there are nights of wondering how one can go from being a bride or groom, with so many people in a room full of splendor, to being alone in a room, feeling like the broken glass.
How Jewish marriages end is too often a tragic one, not only for the broken dreams but the additional threat of being an agunah (meaning “chained,” or “anchored” in a marriage that is over except for divorce) looming over it all, in which a man refuses to give a get (Jewish writ of divorce) or a woman refuses to receive it.
The ability of either spouse to stonewall the process has led to stories, each more bizarre than the next. The Orthodox community may not have Ozarks-style shotgun weddings, but there are shotgun divorces. In New Jersey, a few months ago, a rabbi and his wife were arrested after the couple threatened to bury a man alive in the Pocono Mountains if the man, in the middle of an unresolved divorce process, didn’t immediately give a get to his wife, along with a six-figure check.
There are recalcitrant women, too, who refuse to accept a get. In Israel, a woman was threatened with 30 days in jail if she continued to refuse — after 15 years — to accept a get from her husband, who was perfectly willing to give it.
There are no reliable figures of “chained” men, but in October 2011 the North American Study of Agunot, said to be the first survey of its kind, found more than 462 cases of agunot women over a five-year period.
What almost all of the horror stories have in common is the absence of a pre-nuptial agreement, a document first formulated in 1990s by the Rabbinical Council of America that has done for agunot what the Salk vaccine did for polio — provided, of course, that one actually makes use of it.
In 2006, the RCA, the largest Modern-Centrist Orthodox rabbinic group, passed a resolution declaring that its more than 1,000 rabbis should not officiate at any wedding without an RCA pre-nup. The pre-nup (which can be signed even after marriage, as well as before) states that the couple agree to binding arbitration by an RCA bet din (rabbinical court), giving it “exclusive jurisdiction to decide all issues relating to a get,” at the risk of financial penalties or other sanctions.
Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of the RCA’s Beth Din of America, says of the pre-nup, “Among the people who’ve signed it, it has essentially eliminated the problem [of agunot].”
“You don’t hear of cases lasting years, though there will always be isolated cases,” says Rabbi Weissmann. “I would view a case that’s resolved within six months as a reasonable resolution. By and large, the pre-nup gets the job done.”
One woman, whom we’ll identify as Jay, married without a pre-nup in 1997, and her husband wanted a divorce in 2005. (They did not utilize the RCA bet din). Jay says that her husband was eager to give her a get, which she hesitated to take, but was pressured by her community to accept it. In need of money, she agreed to accept the get, along with a check for $10,000.
Seven years later, she is a civil agunah, a woman who is given a get but is still unable to remarry because the civil courts can take longer than the rabbinical courts. With her husband’s child support often in arrears, with her and her children sometimes living on food stamps, she discovered that her husband — armed with that get — had remarried in a Jewish ceremony. He now has a child with his new wife, a child that is not out of wedlock, a situation the husband wanted to avoid. He did not have a New York marriage license but a Jewish wedding nonetheless, with shouts of mazal tov after the broken glass, and a mazal tov in his shul bulletin.
A state bigamy law prohibits a religious wedding to one woman while still legally married to another, but that statute that has never been enforced to anyone’s memory, surely because of a likely First Amendment church-state challenge. To prevent such weddings and other abuses, Rabbi Weissmann says that the RCA’s practice is, "once the get is agreed upon and handed to the wife, for the bet din to hold in escrow the certificate evidencing that the get was given, until we receive a copy of the civil divorce."
Jay now wonders if she “was a fool” to accept a get. “Am I the last person to find out that these things go on? Am I the last naïve person on earth? A man can be married to two women at the same time? Sometimes I feel that even God’s been bought off by Brooklyn. You mean,” she says laughing bittersweetly, “God doesn’t like this, either?”
Dan, a Modern Orthodox man entangled in a difficult divorce, was pressured by his Modern Orthodox culture to give his wife a get immediately and without preconditions. He regrets it: “That was three years ago and our civil divorce (and child custody arrangements) is still pending. As someone who hasn’t been able to properly see my kids since then, I am more than sympathetic to a man using anything, even withholding the get, so he could see his kids. Quite frankly, if I could go back and ‘un-give’ my get, I would do that. If my get could have been negotiated to allow me to see my kids more, I would do it in a minute.”
It's been suggested that the next phase of the movement for a fair Jewish divorce system is for activists to go beyond the idea that a get must be unconditionally and immediately given, and to instead look at each case in terms of who is the vulnerable party and what would be the best way to achieve justice.
However, Rivka Haut, a highly respected activist on behalf of agunot, says, “Would [Jay] have been better off refusing the get, to have some leverage where she otherwise had none? Perhaps. But I’ve counseled women over the years who have had good reasons, maybe, for not accepting a get, and I tell them that it’s really immoral to use the get for leverage. It cuts both ways. Once you say its OK to use the get for personal advantage, then we’re back to square one. If it’s good for women to use the get that way, it’s good for men.
“When a marriage has died, just end it with a get.”