Empowering Agunot To Tell Their Stories


The tragic biblical story of the sacrifice of Yiftach’s daughter (Judges 11) has haunted me in recent years as I delve into the lives of Jewish women who are compelled to live a life of isolation and barrenness because of their husband’s refusal to grant a get (Jewish divorce) long after the marriage should be over.

I believe these women are the Korban, or sacrifice, that the Orthodox Jewish world offers on the altar of maintaining stability in marriage.  The plight of the Agunah is tolerated because it serves as a sinister deterrent to women that they dare not leave a marriage no matter how unbearable.  This is especially so in the large segments of the Jewish community that still shun the use of a Jewish prenuptial agreement to prevent get refusal. The Agunah is also the sacrifice that rabbinic courts in Israel and the diaspora offer up to maintain a stringent and inflexible interpretation of halacha (Jewish law), even where there is a venerable halachic tradition to free women by voiding the marriage under certain circumstances.

We have much to learn today from the sages’ interpretation of the story of Yiftach’s daughter. Let me recount the story.

In the days of the Judges, before the monarchy was established in Israel, Yiftach, son of Gilead, a brave warrior, led the Jewish people in battle against the Ammonites.

In a moment of religious fervor, he vows to God that if he is victorious in battle, he will sacrifice whatever creature walks out of the door of his house upon his return. He is indeed victorious, but when he arrives home, his daughter—his only child, who remains nameless in the text—rushes out of his house dancing with timbres to celebrate his return. Grief-stricken, he informs her of the sacred vow he cannot retract –that he must consecrate her to God; that she will live in solitude and isolation all the days of her life; that she will never know a man or bear children.

Many women suffer silently in their acceptance of the status quo, unaware that Jewish law does not sanction extortion.

Pious and obedient, she does not cry out in anger. Understanding the gravity of the vow to God, she only asks for a brief respite to bewail her maidenhood with her girlfriends.

The rabbis in the Talmud are not so submissive (Ta’anit 4a).  They cry out in moral outrage at Yiftach’s failure to seek a halachic means to annul his vow.

What if Yiftach’s daughter had known that there was a halachic solution to undo the vow?  Surely, she would have beseeched her father to seek that solution.  Or she would have gone on her own to petition the Beit Din that the vow be declared void.

I have worked with agunot for years as an attorney in New York and at the nonprofit I founded in Los Angeles, Get Jewish Divorce Justice (getjewishdivorce.org).   Many women suffer silently in their acceptance of the status quo, to wit: that they must “pay” for the get, even if the amount of money or privileges that a get-refuser demands are nothing short of extortion.  Many are not aware that Jewish law does not sanction such conduct, and their rabbis and families nonetheless throw up their hands and say, “There is nothing we can do for you because only the husband has the power to grant a Jewish divorce.”

Yet, throughout history rabbinic courts have relied on sound precedents in Jewish law to find a solution where the husband is recalcitrant.  The woman who is suffering is generally not aware of possible solutions, such as voiding a marriage where the wedding ceremony was not properly conducted.  Or where there are fundamental defects in the husband, such as impotence, refusal to have children, a chronic psychiatric condition that was not disclosed at the time of the marriage ceremony. There may be sufficient grounds to void the marriage under Jewish law and thereby find a way around the need for a get. These women accept the status quo because they do not know that there are solutions that are not being used by their local batei din. And if a beit din does find a solution, it is silenced, or –even worse—it is invalidated, thereby sacrificing the life of the Agunah and her unborn children.

And so, I am initiating a #Free_MeToo movement on the Fast of Esther, (https://www.facebook.com/getjewishdivorce/) designated as International Agunah Day in Israel and the diaspora, on February 28.  In so doing I hope to empower Agunot across the globe to tell their stories and educate each other about the pitfalls to avoid and the possible solutions to pursue when they go to a rabbinical court (Beit Din) for the get.  This campaign would bypass their local rabbis and deter them from shutting the prison gate and throwing the keys away – saying there is nothing we can do for you even though we feel your pain.  They may learn that they have access to rabbinic courts in different communities that are committed to finding a solution. They will know that they are not alone and can reach out to other women who were in similar situations and learn how they achieved their goal of getting the get. The women themselves can support each other, and if enough of them impress upon their rabbis to seek solutions, perhaps the daughters of our people may be saved.

Esther Macner is president and founder of Get Jewish Divorce Justice and has a divorce mediation practice at Get Divorce Solutions.