This past February, my spouse and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. When we got married two decades ago, we were one of the few among our many peers who arranged to sign the halachic prenup on our wedding day. We researched the provisions of the document and agreed that as a matter of principle we were going to sign it. When we mentioned our intent to sign the agreement to the rabbi who officiated at our wedding, he indicated that he would have insisted on it any way. In comparison to arranging the details of our wedding, the decision to sign the halachic prenup was easy.
Ironically, we got push-back from some friends and relatives. We were questioned and criticized for signing the halachic prenup as an indication of a lack of long-term commitment to our forthcoming nuptials, or that we were somehow jinxing our marriage. We countered. First, with rising divorce rates, there was no guarantee that we too couldn’t become a statistic. Second, and more importantly, for us it was a matter of setting a precedent to create a safeguard to get abuse. (The only way a woman can leave her halachic marriage is if she is granted a writ of divorce, also known as the get, or if she becomes a widow. The control of the get rests solely on the husband.)
Already in our 20s we had known women who were physically abused, emotionally manipulated and financially extorted before they could receive their get. Since our own wedding we have counseled others to seriously explore the advantages provided by the halachic prenup and have both served as witnesses to the signing of this document. Indeed, I know people who have availed themselves of its legal provisions.
With Purim just within reach, we need to reflect on those who will not celebrate this holiday as free women.
The day of the fast of Esther has been designated as International Agunah Day. I am adding my voice to the growing cacophony to raise awareness about get abuse. When we read Megillat Esther, we learn about Esther as a woman who grows into her power, a woman who effects change, and who saves the entirety of the Jewish people. Esther was a woman who instilled faith and support in others. When Esther calls upon the Jewish people to pray and fast in order to avoid annihilation, they respond in kind. At the end of the story, it appears that Esther remains married to King Ahasuerus for the remainder of her days. However, today we know that most women don’t command such attention and support. And like Esther, agunot (women who are refused divorces by their husbands) are relegated to live out the rest of their days without any recourse — albeit not usually at a palace. With Purim just within reach, we need to reflect on those who will not celebrate this holiday as free women. Today we are the people who have the responsibility to rally around those women who stand alone, who find themselves in an untenable place.
International Agunah Day gives us the opportunity to open up conversations about the prenup with the people in our lives who are planning weddings of their own. The unfortunate truth is that get abuse disproportionately negatively impacts women from Orthodox communities, but there are women from every denominational affiliation who, in addition to undergoing civil procedures, also want to mark the end of their marriages religiously. The effects of get abuse can be devastating for the women who no longer wish to remain married, their children, and their extended families. A woman can remain trapped in her marriage in perpetuity. The halachic prenup provides a legal remedy within a halachic context that provides a layer of protection to the wife against a recalcitrant husband. When the couple signs the agreement, the husband obligates himself to pay his wife a stipulated sum of money if she asks for a get and he does not grant it in a timely manner. The fear of steep financial penalties serves as a deterrent from withholding the get.
A woman can remain trapped in her marriage in perpetuity.
No couple should get married without considering signing the halachic prenup. If your officiating rabbi has not yet brought it to your attention, bring it to theirs. If you are already married and have not yet signed the agreement, you can sign it as a post-nuptial understanding. There is no shame in exploring and signing this halachic and legally binding agreement. Signing the document takes just a moment. Leaving it blank can have dire life-long consequences.
For more information about the halachic prenuptial agreement, please review Binding Arbitration Agreement of the Beth Din of America: theprenup.org. If you are getting married in Israel, please consider signing the Agreement for Mutual Respect: iyim.org.il/prenup. Organizations like www.getyourget.com and www.getora.org can provide you with additional guidance and information.
Daphne Lazar Price is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.