Civil Agunah Case


The sadness felt by Jonathan Mark over the dissolution of marriages (“Tales Of The Broken Glass, Feb. 24) was movingly expressed, but some of his facts need to be corrected.

While I strongly believe that any abuse of halacha is reprehensible, my words were misunderstood to endorse Mark’s view that equivalency exists in the legal positions, and therefore in the vulnerabilities, of husbands and wives, and that they are equally likely to abuse halacha to secure a divorce. 

The opposite is the case. The imbalance in the relative status and available remedies to spouses in a halachic divorce — even with a prenuptial agreement — are well known and need not be restated here.

For centuries halachic sages have asserted the dignity and equal value of women, in part, by incrementally expanding their marital rights, but thus far these rights have fallen short of replacing the unilateral rights of a husband with true parity.

The inequities of the get taint outcomes in the civil courts as well, where the typically lower-income wife or homemaker mother of young children — with or without a get — often cannot afford to retain counsel.

“Jay,” the woman in Mark’s piece, is one such “civil agunah.” She requested my help long after accepting her get; thus my only opinion referred exclusively to the coercion and threats made to her and her children that made moot the free-will acceptance required by halacha.

Rather than facilitate mutuality, some rabbis officiate at bigamous second marriages by such husbands — and at birth ceremonies for “second” children. One even took his congregant from Manhattan to the West Bank to do so.

Hence the persistence of the dignity-drain and financial impoverishment the get was specifically designed to avert.

Little has changed since the early 1970s when halachic feminists endeavored to move history forward alongside professor Zev Falk, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz and COLPA (the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs).

Halachic solutions have long existed. Perhaps the community at last is ready to exercise its considerable power to insist they be applied. And perhaps its rabbis at last are ready to use their considerable power to do so.