Mossad: All 11 Jews missing after fleeing Iran in the 90s were murdered


One year after determining that eight Jews who tried to escape from Iran in 1994 were murdered on their way to Israel, the Mossad has recently found that three other Jews who left Iran three years later were also murdered, Ynet reported. The new determination enabled the Rabbinical Court to rule that their wives are released from their Agunah status and may remarry.

Agunah (Heb: anchored) is a halachic term for a Jewish woman who may not be married because her husband refuses to divorce her, or is missing.

The brothers Cyrus and Ibrahim Kahrameni and Norallah Ravizada fled Tehran in February 1997. They were to meet with a smuggler at the Pakistani border, but did not arrive at the meeting and have since disappeared. Three years earlier, eight other Jews who left Iran in an attempt to flee to Israel disappeared. Their families, who came to Israel via Turkey, have been complaining over the years that the state is not doing enough to find their loved ones and provide closure to the painful affair.

A few years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Mossad to expand the investigation of the fate of the missing. Mossad chief Tamir Pardo took on the assignment and managed to close the case. In March last year it was reported that the Mossad was able to unravel what happened to the eight Jews who fled in 1994, stating that “intelligence officials received information from a reliable source that those Jews were captured during the escape and were killed.”

Recently the Mossad also informed the families of three other missing that their loved ones were also caught and killed during their escape.

Using this new information, a panel of the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, headed by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, removed the status of Agunot from the wives of the missing, stating that they are the widows of martyrs. The families are now waiting for the official judgment to be released and until then they have declined to comment.

The families requested a meeting with the President and the Prime Minister so that they will officially deliver to them the news.

Will haredi Orthodox Jews embrace pre-nups that protect women from becoming agunot?


Breaking up, as the classic song notes, is generally hard to do. But in the Orthodox community, divorce can be particularly trying, especially for women.

That’s because intransigent husbands can hold up the process by refusing to give a get, or a religious writ of divorce. In some cases, husbands use the get as a bargaining chip to extract financial settlements in their favor.

While the problem has existed for centuries, the so-called agunah “crisis” — agunah is the term for a woman “chained” to her failed marriage for want of a get — has gotten more attention in recent years with high-profile cases like that of Gital Dodelson, who successfully enlisted the help of the New York Post to put public pressure on her ex, has gotten significantly more attention over the past few years.

Increasingly, advocates for women are seeking to prevent the problem by pushing for religious prenuptial agreements and sponsoring prenuptial and postnuptial “signup parties” for which engaged and married couples.

Up to this point, these “parties” have primarily been a Modern Orthodox phenomenon. But this Sunday, for what is believed to be the first time, haredi Orthodox couples will attend a “Halachic Prenup/Postnup” party in Brooklyn.

Allison Josephs, who runs Jew in the City, a social media organization promoting this weekend’s event, said that the debate over the halachic prenup and postnup documents is “really starting to rumble” through the Chabad community.

“People are looking for an answer,” she said. “I think this could be the beginning of a new era in terms of the agunah crisis.”

For those interested, the signup party will take place at the Chevra Ahavas Yisroel synagogue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. More information can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

Israeli rabbinic, legal groups partner for prenup in bid to prevent agunot


A Religious Zionist rabbinic organization in Israel has launched a new prenuptial agreement to help ensure that divorcing wives will receive a religious divorce, or get.

Tzohar, along with the Israel Bar Association, introduced the agreement on Sunday that encourages a husband not to withhold a religious divorce, without which a woman cannot remarry. Wives who are not given the Jewish divorce writ are known as agunot, or chained women.

It is the first time that a major legal organization in Israel has partnered with a rabbinic organization on such an agreement, according to Rabbi David Stav, Tzohar’s chairman.

Under the Tzohar prenuptial agreement, the husband commits to paying a high sum of money daily to his spouse in the event of a separation. The word get, or religious divorce, is not mentioned in the document, he said.

In a statement, Tzohar said the agreement meets the requirements of Israeli law and policy according to state legal courts, as well as Jewish law, or halachah.

Tzohar, which said the agreement took six years and 16 versions to finalize, also said that it was “uniquely positioned” to push the agreement into widespread use, since it has members throughout the country and is one of the “main facilitators” of marriages in Israel.

“No one deserves to stay chained in a terrible marriage with a knife at their throat,” Stav said. “This agreement can and should become the norm in Israeli society to ensure that the end of a marriage and separating from your partner be treated with respect and dignity.”

Stav told JTA that there are several prenuptial agreements circulating in Israeli society that were written by individual rabbis. He said this is the first time that a major Israeli rabbinical organization has put its weight behind such an agreement.

As opposed to the United States, where a couple can be civilly divorced before they get a religious divorce, in Israel they are the same.

Agunah organizations say there are thousands of chained women in Israel, while the Chief Rabbinate claims fewer than 200 do not receive a get.

Esther Macner: Agunah advocate promotes post-nuptials


At 62, Esther Macner radiates feistiness and confidence. 

During a recent interview at the Journal’s headquarters, she described herself as an “Orthodox Jewish feminist, which I’ve been all my life, before the word became a label.” 

A former prosecutor and trial attorney in New York, Macner moved to Los Angeles just five years ago and is now poised to become an increasingly important presence in the Los Angeles Modern Orthodox world.  Her focus is the crisis of women, known as agunot — literally “anchored” —  who are stuck in dead marriages, unable to make their estranged husbands grant them a Jewish divorce decree, known as a get. Less than one year ago, the mother of two and grandmother of two established the nonprofit Get Jewish Divorce Justice to advocate for these women who are unable to remarry without risking their status within their faith community. 

For Macner, the issue is deeply personal. She believes the Jewish legal system enabling the creation of agunot is “an embarrassment to me and a painful blemish on my identity.”

And while an agunah cannot remarry or have more children beyond those she had with her husband, he, if he can obtain the permission of 100 rabbis, is allowed to take a new wife and create a new family. 

To that end, Get Jewish Divorce Justice, along with several area rabbis, is organizing an event called “Retying the Knot, Unchaining the Agunah,” at which Orthodox married couples will sign postnuptial agreements, a legal vow to be fair to one another should they ever decide to divorce. 

The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at The Mark on Pico Boulevard from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Sunday, Sept. 7.

The agunah issue took the local limelight last March, when a group of Angelenos, including a few prominent Modern Orthodox leaders, traveled to Las Vegas to stage a rally at the second marriage of a former L.A. resident, Israeli Meir Kin, who was continuing to refuse a get to his first wife, Lonna Kin. The Jewish Journal ran a cover story about the Kins headlined “Till Get Do Us Part.” 

Macner’s mission with her fledgling organization is to let women caught in such marriages know that her group is a resource for help. 

In the Orthodox community, postnuptial agreements can be created by couples who never entered into halachic prenuptial agreements before getting married, and the documents obligate married couples to settle a divorce in a reputable rabbinic court, among other things.

Corrupt rabbinic courts have been part of what leads to agunah cases, Macner said, by allowing the husband to find ways to escape the marriage for himself — or sometimes even to attempt to extort money from the former wife.

Many of the L.A. rabbis who participated in the Las Vegas rally, including Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation; Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation; and Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s head of school, are among those participating in Sunday’s event. 

Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City also will be at the event.

Rabbi Yona Reiss, a member of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, will present a talk titled “The Origin and the Urgency of the Halachic Pre-Nuptial Agreement.” 

More than 450 agunot are believed to live in the United States.

Part of the problem is that there is no official registry of agunot keeping a count, Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), which organized the Las Vegas action, said in an interview at the time of that rally.

Here in Los Angeles, Macner is currently seeking volunteers for a task force that will reach out to “agunot who are in need of assistance,” a recent email from her organization said. 

Macner told the Journal that her efforts to raise awareness about agunot, including integrating prayers for agunot into the tehillim (psalms) readings at synagogues, have successfully helped resolve the cases of several women. 

Get Jewish Divorce Justice, with just two staff and no office space, is smaller than the better-known ORA, but its goals are similar — the “prevention of abuse in the Jewish divorce process, through education, advocacy and individual counseling,” an online biography for Macner reads. 

Macner said she views herself as a “liaison” among the rabbinic community, the victims, and the rabbinic courts, which often don’t work together in ways that might lead to resolving agunah cases, she said. For instance, women are not always comfortable discussing their situations with the male rabbis of the rabbinic courts, she said. Being an insider and understanding these issues helps her, she said: “I’ve always been Orthodox, and I have always worked from within the community.” 

Macner said she is also interested in forming a support group for women who have undergone these challenges to focus on healing through the arts. She is working to create a theater piece telling real women’s stories, which she called “The Agunah Monologues.” 

Macner draws on her experience as a trial attorney and divorce mediator, specializing in “family law, domestic violence and rabbinic court representation,” according to her biography. She is a graduate of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, received a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

Macner and her husband, Chaim Plotzker, live in Pico-Robertson. She jokingly describes the union as a “mixed marriage” — she attends services at B’nai-David Judea, and he attends Young Israel of Century City. 

Together they also attend the Happy Minyan, a Shlomo Carlebach-style congregation, she said. 

Prior to taking on the agunah issue, Macner worked as an advocate for the advancement of women in Orthodox circles, including creating a shul in 1980 where women read from the Torah and said Kiddush, and where young girls sang Adon Olam. 

As she made her way out of the Journal’s office, where the interview took place, a final question from a reporter stopped her in her tracks. 

“Why be Orthodox if you’re a woman today?”

Macner admitted to having some differences with the Orthodox community, in particular the way its laws can marginalize women.

But she said she can’t “divorce” herself from living a life based on halachah, disagree with it though she might. 

“It’s too high a price to pay to have someone deny their identity,” Macner said. “If something is wrong, you need to change it from within.”

 

For more information on the event, and to RSVP, visit https://www.facebook.com/RetyingTheKnot.

Ensuring the spirit of halachic marriage


Each time we hear of yet another heart-wrenching and infuriating agunah story, we tend to point an accusing finger at the Jewish legal system that has created these circumstances, in which spiteful, angry husbands can cynically abuse the divorce laws to extort and torment their wives. And this is not an unreasonable reaction. It is true that within halachah, the husband alone possesses the legal authority to issue the Jewish writ of divorce, a get. A wife cannot issue a get, nor can a rabbinical court. Yes, the category of annulment exists in the Talmud, but centuries of legal precedent agree that annulment does not apply to such cases. So it can be stated fairly and accurately that the law itself, without intention to do so, has created the circumstances that enable these abuses to occur. 

In the minds of some, this leads to the ineluctable conclusion that we ought to simply abandon the religious law. This, however, is a tautological nonstarter for Orthodox Jews.  For us, the halachah is “our life and the length of our days.” A much more subtle and plausible version of the idea though, has begun to circulate within our community, namely, that if we are to remain committed to halachah as a system, then we have no choice today but to avoid creating halachically valid marriages. There are indeed any number of ways that a couple and a rabbi can purposefully subvert the halachic validity of a marriage ceremony, and any one of these ways would be sufficient to obviate the need for a get, should the couple separate later on. The justification for this proposal is simple and straightforward. If we have no way of ensuring a halachic off-ramp, then we simply have to avoid getting onto the halachic on-ramp. 

On a visceral level, I understand why this proposal is appealing. There is even a sense of justice about it. Yet, I shudder to think about its possible unintended consequences. For as much as we are stymied by halachah in these awful agunah situations, we are thankful to halachah for having created the marriages and the families that so many of us enjoy. 

While the Torah itself spoke of marriage in only a legalistic way, the talmudic literature reinvented marriage as a deeply committed, truly covenanted relationship. The rabbis of the Talmud utilized the verse “Love your friend as yourself” as the legal framework regulating the marital relationship, and they described the marital bed itself as a place where the presence of God should hover. And these were no mere homiletics. The Talmud legally mandates that spouses cherish and respect one another, and take responsibility for the other’s material and emotional welfare. In addition, the Talmud imposed the institution of the ketubah with an alimony payment at its heart, to prevent husbands from seeing their marriages as being easily disposable. In this way, it protected wives and protected the institution of marriage from being undertaken — and from being regarded — casually. Long-term commitment was bred into the system so that marriage would have the strength to endure the crises and conflicts that invariably affect every marriage at some point or another. And this is the legal and ethical nature of halachic marriage.

What might the consequences be if we began to advise our daughters to avoid entering halachically binding marriages? Even though it might seem a sensible and practical idea for any given woman, what would the impact be if it became the practice of the entire community? The same halachic system that frustrates us when we rally against a recalcitrant husband also produces the kinds of marriages that we desire to have for ourselves, for our children and for our community. This is part of the reason, after all, that we are committed to halachah to begin with. 

The existence of agunot is the ugliest moral scar on the face of Orthodox Judaism, bar none. And each one of us who upholds halachah bears personal responsibility for mitigating the unintended yet devastating damage that it allows to occur. A couple of centuries ago, in a different time and place, this was easier to do. When a husband was tormenting his wife, or leaving her chained to a dead marriage, the local rabbinical court utilized various kinds of social, economic and even physical pressure to induce him to give his wife a get. But in our time and place, in which religious courts do not wield legal enforcement powers, and recalcitrant husbands can simply leave the social and economic orbit of the Jewish community, the old ways do not serve us nearly as well.

Today, in our time and in our place, the responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of each one of us. The first thing we each need to do is insist that every single couple that marries signs the halachic prenuptial agreement (go to rabbis.org). The halachic prenup is not a panacea, but it has the civil legal capacity to profoundly discourage husbands from withholding a get.  Years ago, our synagogue board at Congregation B’nai David-Judea modified our bylaws to prohibit any rabbi ever employed by the synagogue from performing a wedding without a halachic prenup. Please check to see that your synagogue has a similar policy. And if you are already married and don’t have a halachic prenup, circle Sept. 7, 2014, on your calendars. This is the day on which the Pico-Robertson Orthodox community will be hosting a mass halachic postnuptial signing. 

No less important, each and every one of us must also commit — fully and without any exceptions — to the watertight policy that there is never, ever an excuse or justification for extortion. No one, not our brother, nor our son, nor our rabbi, can ever attach conditions of any kind to the delivery of a get. Not a financial condition, not a child custody condition, not any condition of any sort. And we have to possess the moral vision and religious courage to loudly and publicly label any effort to impose such conditions for what they are — extortion — plain and simple. We can’t let ourselves be fooled or hoodwinked. 

Extortion can hide even in the folds of piety or behind the mask of rabbinical ordination. We cannot fall for it. We have to call it out when we see it, for it may be up to you and you alone to save a woman from becoming an agunah.

We cannot have it both ways. If we choose to live according to halachah, we must take responsibility for halachah.


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Letters to the editor: Divorce in the Jewish community


Getting a Solution 

Thank you, Ryan Torok, for your excellent coverage of the “get” story (“Till Get Do Us Part,” March 28). The “wedding” was a Chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.

The protest is a Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of the God’s name.

Those rabbis who led the protest deserve our praise, our admiration and our gratitude … Rabbi Segal has taught his students at Shalhevet a wonderful lesson in morality, responsibility and Jewish values, most especially in reverence for the halachah. He is especially deserving of praise.

The rabbis who permitted this abomination deserve our scorn.

One can be grateful that Chabad does not count him for a minyan or give him honors within the service. He should not even be allowed to enter the premises. His very presence is an abomination.

And for all of us who respect tradition must insist that Orthodox Rabbis solve this problem. There is a way; all that is missing is courage and determination.

Michael Berenbaum via e-mail

Meir Kin is doing what comes naturally to him, which is looking out for his own selfish interest. I’m not excusing his despicable conduct, but a rally against him won’t fix the problem.

The shanda in this is that the Orthodox rabbinate has not found a way for women to be divorced in every situation in which the wife wishes to be divorced, without the issuance of a get by the husband. A woman should be able to go to a beit din, and receive a declaration of divorce and freedom to remarry in all cases, no questions asked.

If the Orthodox rabbinate could show courage in this, then the problem would end. We find loopholes for nearly everything; pikuach nefesh is the grand catch-all, and certainly halacha has stretched pikuach nefesh for less severe situations. (A doctor can drive to the hospital for every possible minor issue, and a woman can have an abortion because giving birth may have cause her psychological harm, but a beit din can’t rely on pikuach nefesh to order a woman free?)

Jeffrey Rabin via e-mail

For the last month, this paper has done a hatchet job on the Orthodox Jewish community. In articles on the Mizachi family, Dick and Michael Horowitz, Rabbi Ten, yeshiva students in the Israeli army and now the Kin get. This week’s parasha, Tazria, dealt with the consequence of lashon harah and so will next week’s. Whether Meir Kin gives a get to his ex-wife or not will not increase the number of Jewish children getting a quality Jewish education. It will not help bring Jews back to Judaism, have them keep kosher or get Jews to keep Shabbat. It will not help our people overcome sinat chinam or promote love amongst each other. Truly, should the Kin get be the main discussion at the Shabbat table? 

Dory Frank via e-maill

The Divorce Is in the Details

Toward the end of her recent article on agunot (“Confronting the Problem of Orthodox Divorce,” March 28), Alexandra Leichter indicated that Conservative Jews do not have this problem because the international beit din of the Conservative movement has the authority to annul marriages in which the husband has refused to give a Jewish writ of divorce (a get). I would like to add two things to what she correctly said. 

First, the authority to annul marriages is based on the Talmud’s assertion that rabbis have that power). Orthodox rabbis have refused to use this authority that the Talmud gives them, despite the agony of agunot, while we Conservative rabbis will use that authority when no other avenue is open to free a woman from her first husband. 

Second, annulling a marriage is a last resort. Before that, we Conservative rabbis, like Orthodox rabbis, will do what we can to convince the husband to issue a get. In 1968, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a ruling that provides for using a prenuptial agreement. The agreement, however, is different from the one that some Orthodox rabbis are now using. The latter seeks to impose a fine on the man each day he refuses to issue a get after a rabbinic court orders him to do so, but it is frankly questionable whether rabbis have the authority to collect such a fine. The Conservative prenuptial agreement, in contrast, states that if there is a divorce in civil law and the husband has not issued a get within six months thereafter, he agrees that the marriage was not a marriage from the beginning. This does not require a court to act, whether a civil or rabbinic court; it does not involve threatening uncollectable fines; and while it transforms the couple’s acts of sex within the marriage to the legal status of licentiousness rather than sacred union, it does not affect the legal status of any children the couple had, for an illegitimate child (a mamzer) is only the product of an incestuous or adulterous union, not one that could have been sanctified in marriage. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Los Angeles

Israel Meir Kin is a threat to all Jewish women


A little over a thousand years ago, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, the leading scholar of Ashkenazi Jewry, enacted bold legal measures to protect Jewish women from abuse.

Last week a fellow named Israel Meir Kin poked his finger in Rabbenu Gershom’s eye, and now every Jewish woman is at risk.

In his day, Rabbenu Gershom began to notice a disturbing and outrageous trend. Husbands, who found that they now fancied another woman, were taking advantage of the Biblical law allowing them to divorce their wives unilaterally and virtually without cause. And with the stroke of a pen, and the cold delivery of a divorce document, they were shattering the lives of their wives and families. Rabbenu Gershom strode into the breach and proclaimed a ban of excommunication against any man who divorced his wife without her consent. And to insure these husbands who lusted after another woman wouldn’t simply marry their new love without divorcing their first wives, he placed the same ban of excommunication on any man who married more than one wife, effectively ending the practice of polygamy in Ashkenaz. Rabbenu Gershom was determined that Jewish women would no longer be subject to this kind of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

In our day, Israel Meir Kin has undone Rabbenu Gershom’s work. This past Thursday, as about 30 of us stood in protest, he blatantly violated Rabbenu Gershom’s ban, by marrying a second woman without divorcing his wife. As if it were not enough that for the past 9 years he has spitefully been refusing to grant a Jewish divorce to his wife Lonna (allegedly unless she were to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars), he has now completed his journey of shame by toppling the age-old ban on polygamy. (See the articles in this past Saturday’s New York Times, and the Jewish Journal.

Make no mistake. Israel Meir Kin’s actions are not merely outrageous and despicable. His actions threaten all of our daughters and all of our sisters. I can guarantee you that at this very moment there are men who are watching, waiting to see whether Israel Meir Kin gets away with this. And if he does, there will be more Israel Meir Kins. And every single married Jewish woman will be shorn of the protection Rabbenu Gershom had afforded women for the past millennium.

If you know Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant now residing in Las Vegas, Nevada, or if you know someone who knows him, you must act now. Bring whatever legal form of social or economic pressure to bear on him that you can. This is a moment that has the potential to wreak havoc and misery for generations to come. Unless we act to stop it.

Confronting the problem of Orthodox divorce


When I began practicing law more than four decades ago, divorce in the Los Angeles Orthodox Jewish community was rare — and the giving of a get (Jewish divorce) by the husband was quietly arranged in the local rabbi’s study without fanfare, creating only a few social ripples in the fabric of a close-knit community. Get refusal, or get extortion was almost unknown. (One blatant exception was when a rabbi’s son was finally forced to give a get after eight-plus years of recalcitrance, but only after he was allegedly beaten and thrown into a newly dug grave in New York, whereupon he “willingly” gave his wife a get).

While I was generally aware that a Jewish marriage was not dissolved by a secular divorce until the husband gave the wife a get and freed her to remarry, the possibility of a husband withholding a get and leaving the wife an agunah (a woman chained to a dead marriage) was not something that occurred in my law practice until several years after I opened my office in 1972. 

[Related: Till get do us part]

Around 1976, I began receiving an increasing number of cases where husbands refused to give a get for vengeance, or to extort money, property or even custody rights to their children, in some cases whom they may have molested. The result was taking into consideration the grave threat of forcing a woman into a state of agunah if the civil case did not proceed as the husband demanded. I quickly learned that under Jewish law, by virtue of “acquiring” a wife, the husband also had unfettered rights to keep her chained to him until he decided to free her, or until his death could be verified. This gave power to the abusive husband to prevent the wife from ever remarrying or having children with another man, even when he himself remarried and had children in his new relationship.

This imbalance in power afforded the husband creates numerous problems in affecting a civil divorce settlement or judgment, as well, because no amount of legal creativity can force the husband to free the wife from the Jewish marriage bonds. Get refusal and get extortions became so much a part of the Orthodox divorce scene that, being the only family-law practitioner in Los Angeles who also knew the intricacies of the Jewish divorce law, I was compelled to write legal articles, train lawyers and judges to watch out for the problem, and create some solutions. 

The delicate balance of the civil law rights to equal property division, as well as spousal and child support and custodial determination, was constantly being jeopardized by a husband’s threat to withhold the get and leave the wife an agunah. I often felt like I was walking a religious tightrope, where any misstep could doom my client.

There are many highly legitimate reasons for a woman to want a divorce that even the most traditional families can accept: marriage to a man who is physically or emotionally abusive or who molests children, or who is discovered after marriage to be homosexual, or who is an adulterer, or who remarries without giving his wife a get, or who disappears, just to name a few. Yet, in an Orthodox marriage, a man marries his bride via a kinyan (an acquisition), and he essentially possesses her until he decides to free her by giving her a get, which, by Jewish law, he must give willingly and without coercion. 

If the marriage is legitimately Orthodox, not even the rabbis can free a woman from her marriage — only the husband can. A woman who remarries without a get from her former husband is deemed an adulteress, and the result is that her children — and all progeny from her subsequent relationship — are punished, deemed mamzerim

The word mamzer is often loosely translated in English as “bastard” or “illegitimate,” but it actually signifies a child from an incestuous relationship. Jewish law does not recognize the concept of “illegitimacy,” so children of an unmarried Jewish woman, for example, are considered legitimate and can freely marry other Jews, but a mamzer is forbidden to marry anyone except another mamzer. This Jewish law remains very much in practice among today’s Orthodox Jews. I have been presented with a number of cases where young people who are about to marry Orthodox suddenly discover they cannot because they were fathered by a man their mother married without having obtained a get from her former husband. In Israel, the rabbinate even keeps a record of known mamzerim to prevent accidental illegitimate marriages into the Jewish community. 

The converse, however, is not true. A man who fathers children with another woman without giving a get to his first wife does not beget mamzerim — his children remain legitimate and able to marry other Jews. That is simply because, biblically, a man was allowed many simultaneous wives, and the subsequent rabbinic prohibition of polygamy does not prevent the legitimacy of the husband’s remarriage. 

While there are other intricate Jewish divorce and marriage laws too numerous to mention here, it is worth noting that there is no reciprocity, because while a woman can refuse to accept a get from her husband, this power is illusory because neither the husband, nor his children, would suffer any consequences if he remarries without his first wife’s acceptance of the get. Additionally, men can always avail themselves of the law of heter meah rabbanim, “the release by 100 rabbis,” that allows him to remarry despite the failure to legitimately end the first marriage. Such a heter is not available to a woman. The most recent example of this is the well-publicized refusal by an Orthodox man, Israel Meir Kin, to give his first wife a get, even though he married another woman on March 20 in Las Vegas, and no amount of public condemnation from members of the Orthodox community prevented him from doing so.  Thus, Kin’s first wife languishes in limbo, unable to remarry or even to date, while her husband proceeds happily with his new marriage, which was performed by an Orthodox rabbi.

These cases of get extortion or get refusal were so rare 50 years ago that they were only whispered about, like the word “cancer” during coffee klatches. But they are now a burgeoning industry. Even the great-grandson of the revered Rav Moshe Feinstein (the great rabbi whose liberal decrees helped free women to remarry when they couldn’t physically prove the deaths of their former husbands in the Holocaust) refused to give his young wife a get for many years, holding her captive to his demands for hundreds of thousands of dollars from her family until she exposed this travesty in the New York Post a few months ago. 

On International Agundah Day last year, I participated in a panel discussion held in Los Angeles and sponsored by Get Jewish Divorce Justice Inc. More than one-third of the 100-plus attendees acknowledged having family members or close friends who have either been refused a get or have been extorted for their right to freedom from an abusive Orthodox marriage. It was sickening to hear of women whose husbands demanded millions of dollars from the family; rabbis who shamefully participated in “bargaining” for the amount the husband would accept for the get. A growing industry of physical coercion (the only halachic, albeit criminal, means of forcing a man to “freely” grant a get to his wife) has gained worldwide attention with the recent arrest by the FBI of Rabbi Mendel Epstein, who is accused of hiring thugs to threaten the use of electric cattle prods on the private parts of recalcitrant husbands. A recent survey in Israel revealed that at least two-thirds of married women are fearful that asking for their legitimate share of property or custody of their children could leave them in marital limbo, because their husbands can refuse to give a get. (This is despite the fact that the Israeli rabbinate can lift the driver’s and professional licenses of recalcitrant husbands, or even jail them to coerce a get, though it rarely avails itself of this power).

Numerous solutions have been advanced to counter this problem. Currently popular is the “prenuptial agreement,” which is really an arbitration agreement, granting power to the beit din (Jewish court of law) to decide whether the husband should give his wife a get, as well as to impose a daily support amount he owes her for as long as they are separated and he fails to give a get. While some approaching marriage shy away in horror at the idea of anticipating a possible divorce via such an arbitration agreement, the 2,000-year-old ketubbah — regardless of its artistic presentation — is itself already a prenuptial agreement that specifies the husband’s monetary obligations to his wife in case of divorce or his death. The “arbitration agreement” is nothing more than a monetization of the husband’s obligation to give his wife a get and the wife’s obligation to accept it.

But even this is not a panacea, because, among other shortcomings, it fails to insure a woman’s freedom should the husband not care about the penalty, either because he is too rich or too poor, or if the husband disappears, is mentally disabled, or if he dies without heirs but leaves behind a brother who refuses to free the hapless widow from the levirate marriage requirement (requiring that she should marry her brother-in-law). 

Another agreement, the tripartite agreement, essentially annuls the marriage should the husband refuse a get if the couple has lived separately for at least15 months (the children of such annulled marriages remain legitimate in Jewish law). While this agreement is probably the best antidote to an agunah problem, it is largely unknown and rarely used because Orthodox rabbis have been taking years to rally around its legitimacy. (I always recommend signing both the arbitration and tripartite agreements — like chicken soup, it can’t hurt.)

In the meantime, every Orthodox marriage ceremony remains fraught with the possibility of entrapping a woman in a dead marriage from which she cannot escape without her husband’s consent. There is a secret not many rabbis will acknowledge, but which is well-known and whispered in increasingly louder chorus in the agunah-activist community: Currently, the only failsafe solution to preventing a woman from becoming an agunah is to prevent the marriage ceremony from being deemed Orthodox. In other words, to prevent the kinyan of the bride. As long as there is a “flaw” in the Orthodox ceremony, such as unkosher witnesses or a double-ring exchange, etc., the power of the husband over the wife is never acquired, and a get becomes superfluous. The children of that marriage will still be deemed legitimate under Jewish (and civil) law, and the marriage deemed valid under civil law (assuming it is done with a civil marriage license), but the bride will not become the acquisition of the groom, and thus he cannot exercise a power over her that an Orthodox ceremony grants him.

I do not advocate this draconian solution lightly. I have an Orthodox background, and I am proud of my pedigree as an alumna of both the ultra-Orthodox Satmar Yeshiva (Bais Rachel) in New York and Bais Yaakov School for girls both in New York and in Los Angeles. My own marriage ceremony was attested to by 10 ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Our son was raised Orthodox, and he attended Orthodox yeshivot until his graduation from high school, and we are continued members of an Orthodox synagogue.

 It is probably because I know the community from the inside, and because I understand the angst such a drastic recommendation will engender, that I speak out now to condemn what I have increasingly witnessed as blight on the community, and the danger to its daughters. 

I have been vilified, cursed, disdained and worse because I, together with a number of agunah activists, have dared to voice opposition to Orthodox ceremonies that entomb the wife and vocally excoriate rabbis for their impotence or unwillingness to permanently obtain foolproof solutions to free a woman from a dead Orthodox marriage. Conservative marriages do not encounter this problem, as Conservative rabbis are empowered to annul marriages where the husband refuses to give a get, yet Orthodox rabbis who have bravely advocated similar solutions have been condemned and marginalized by their rabbinic brethren. 

Until Orthodox rabbis have the courage to come up with permanent and legitimate solutions to eradicate this problem, there is only one way parents can definitively inoculate their daughters against this epidemic and assure them they will not be locked away in limbo at the mercy of their husbands: Do not allow them to marry in an Orthodox ceremony.


Alexandra Leichter is a partner in the law firm of Leichter Leichter-Maroko LLP and is a California State Bar Certified Family Law specialist. E-mail: Contact@LLMFamilyLaw.com

Opinion: Why we all need to care about Jewish divorce law


I am often asked: “Why are you so preoccupied with the problem of get refusal. Have you ever been an agunah?”

The term agunah broadly refers to a Jewish woman who is “chained” or “anchored” to a dead marriage, rendering her unable to remarry, because her husband refuses to give her a Jewish bill of divorce, or get. According to Jewish and Israeli law, a man must voluntarily issue a get, and a woman must voluntarily accept a get, in order to sever a marriage. Orthodox, Conservative and Traditional Jews, as opposed to Reform, do not recognize civil divorce as overriding the requirement of the get.

No, thank God, I have never been a victim of the abuse of get refusal. I have represented such women, heard their stories, observed their anguish and cannot quell the passion, fury and yearning to redress this scourge, which continues to plague our people and to sully Orthodox Judaism, which is my identity and which I love. I have seen it — up close and personal — in my years as a senior trial attorney in the Domestic Violence Bureau in Kings County, Brooklyn, N.Y., and thereafter as a divorce attorney practicing in various beit din (rabbinic courts) in New York. I have witnessed how personal greed, and/or the need for power and control when coupled with religious justifications, have given birth to a perversion of Jewish law, and I have felt ashamed to be a practicing Jew.

I am ashamed that we still have rabbis who accept that extortion for the giving of a get is the norm, as if it is simply the cost of doing business: “I will give you your get if your daddy forks over half a million.” I am ashamed when rabbinic courts are manipulated to act as agents of the recalcitrant husband by putting pressure on the estranged wife, mother and caretaker of his children to accept successive outrageous conditions in order to get her get. I am proud when rabbinic courts overturn every stone, to put pressure on the husband to fulfill the mitzvah, or God’s command, that he give a get once he is no longer living with his wife and there is no realistic hope of reconciliation. I am ashamed when a Jewish man, who has agreed to abide by the terms of an arbitrator to give a get on a date certain, tries to hoodwink a judge into believing that he has complied by sending a “get by e-mail,” without scribes or witnesses. Such levels of absurd deception are a mockery of all that I hold dear in Jewish practice.

I am pained by the torment, confusion and insecurity that children of the agunah experience — not knowing who to trust and who to believe, between their parents and their respective families. The ripple effect bitterly damages more than one generation of children.

What can be done to remedy this dire state of affairs? As our sages tell us in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), “It is not your obligation to complete the task, but neither are you free to refrain from attempting to do so.” 

Each of us as individuals, as mothers and fathers, rabbis and lay leaders, young prospective brides and grooms, and all of their buddies, must demand from our synagogues and schools that at least one day in the Jewish calendar be designated to educate the community about issues of get refusal. We cannot shirk our individual responsibility and wait for change by the rabbis alone. We must galvanize unity and support for any case of get refusal that we hear about — not in hushed whispers, but in thunderous unity. After all, as Americans we have succeeded in turning “smoking as hip” to “smoking as shameful,” once we understood how lethal it is for our health and survival.

To that end, I call upon all of you, readers and your friends, to attend the first International Agunah Day Learning to be held on Feb. 26, 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., at B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles. You will hear from a former agunah, learn and understand how the abuse of get refusal can be prevented and what measures can be taken to deter cases in which it occurs.

For the past two decades, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) has declared the Fast of Esther as International Agunah Day, and it is observed throughout the world with communal education programs. In February 2010, a bill, which did not pass, was presented to the Knesset to officially declare Agunah Day to mark the annual Fast of Esther, on the eve of Purim. The bill provided for an annual Knesset hearing on the state of the abuse of get refusal, and to sponsor educational curricula in all schools, youth groups, Israel Defense Forces, and on the media.

Rabbinical court advocate Rachel Levmore explicated the connection between the Fast of Esther and Agunah Day, within the bill, as a symbol of suffering and ultimate salvation. Esther is trapped in a marriage against her will, living a double life, in fear and lacking control of her freedom. Yet, when called to save her people, she instructs Mordechai, “Go, assemble all the Jews found in Shushan and fast for me. … Then I will go in to the King although it is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16).

Esther was a brilliant strategist. Although Mordechai and others were already wearing sackcloth and fasting as individuals, only by declaring a public communal fast, in unity, would she and her people have the spiritual fortitude to overcome the scourge that sought to destroy them. And so, we fast in unity in order to celebrate in unity.

The agunah issue is relevant to Jews of all stripes, especially Israelis, or anyone who has strong ties to Israel. Since the State of Israel does not sponsor civil marriage or divorce, a formerly married Jewish woman who immigrates to Israel will not be able to remarry in Israel unless she has obtained a get from her first husband. Likewise, children from her second marriage would be restricted in whom they could marry, in Israel and in traditional Jewish families.

Let us adopt Agunah Day as an annual community event in Los Angeles — to repair the world, prevent extortion, inequity and abuse in domestic relations, and to adopt zero tolerance against those who engage in the abuse of get refusal.

Go to http://www.bnaidavid.com/education/special-classes.html to RSVP for International Agunah Day community learning. To contact Esther Macner directly, go to getjewishdivorce@gmail.com

Esther Macner is the founder of Get Jewish Divorce,  a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and deterrence of get refusal.

The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’


When Rabbi Hagai Batzri remarried, on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles, his first wife, Luna Batzri, still hadn’t received a get from him, a Jewish divorce.

According to Jewish law, the rabbi, 41, is now married to two women at the same time, and Luna, 36, seems to be in the unfortunate position of being an agunah, literally a “chained woman,” unable to remarry.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of agunot around the world, and they face numerous emotional and practical obstacles. Not only can these women not remarry, but Jewish law dictates that a child born to an agunah can never marry a Jew, and her offspring and subsequent generations cannot marry Jews, either. Forever.

Reports on the Batzri case have prompted outrage in Israel and in Los Angeles, both because Hagai is from a prestigious religious family in Jerusalem and because Luna is seen as yet one more victim of the inequities between Orthodox men and women.

But as is often the case with divorce, there are complications in the story of this young couple who were once leaders of a Sephardic synagogue and schooling center in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Although the characters in this Los Angeles-Israel drama fit into stereotypical roles — the “poor wife,” aggrieved by her “powerful religious husband” and by the “evil rabbinical courts” — there is another side to the tale.

Hagai and Luna Batzri each agreed to give The Jewish Journal a personal perspective on their situation. It was the first such interview for Hagai; Luna’s story has been previously told in the Hebrew press, both in Israel and Los Angeles. Paired with Hagai’s version, along with accounts from other rabbis involved in the case, a nuanced picture emerges and raises questions: Is Luna Batzri a victim of religious law biased against woman, or is she also perhaps a victim of her own decisions in the course of a bitter divorce? For his part, is Hagai Batzri a victim of an unforgiving wife or is he a man who has unfeelingly bent the rules of Jewish law in his favor and against his wife?

Hagai and Luna Batzri were introduced to one another by their aunts in Jersualem in 1988. He was 23, from a prestigious ultra-Orthodox family (his father is the head of the Jerusalem Court); she was 16, in the army and from a religious Zionist family (her father owns a profitable construction company). Within a few months they married and moved to Los Angeles, where Hagai had been living.

After working in various businesses, Hagai studied for the rabbinate. In the late 1990s, the couple founded the Orthodox Sephardic synagogue Hashalom in L.A.’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, serving 150 people of Israeli, French, Persian, Iraqi and Middle Eastern backgrounds. They also created the Talmud Torah, an afterschool Hebrew studies program for public school kids ages 6-12, with an enrollment that grew to 220 students.

“Everyone was together, it was like a family there,” said an Israeli shul member who was a close friend of the couple and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They looked like the perfect couple. He was a good rabbi. She was giving shiurim [religious classes]. He was always complimenting her.”

But the marriage was “up and down,” Luna said. Over their 15 years of marriage, she said, “we almost got divorced four times,” but they managed to patch things up for the sake of their community and for their teenage son. By August 2003, though, they couldn’t hold it together. The couple began to talk divorce.

At first their parting seemed to proceed as amicably as could be hoped for, Luna said. They went to mediation at Jewish Family Service to avoid the courts.

“You know, even though we were doing something very hard, it’s possible to finish it in a proper way and make it a Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of the name of God, she said.

Over the next few months, Luna said they came to an agreement about sharing custody of their son and dividing their assets, including the synagogue and the school. She said she wanted to finish everything before she went to the beit din, the rabbinical court, to obtain her Jewish divorce.

“You know, when you start you think everything is going to be nice, with good will. But when it comes down to it, no one is going to be handing out candies,” Luna said, using an Israeli expression meaning that it won’t be easy.

After Passover 2004, the Batzris were set to go to the beit din with their agreement to receive their get. And that was when the trouble began.

According to Jewish law, a man and a woman must obtain a rabbinic dissolution of marriage in a beit din. If one of the parties does not accept the get, the court issues a contract of refusal to the recalcitrant party. But the procedure differs for a man and a woman: The man can take this contract and then, with the permission of 100 rabbis, can dissolve the marriage. The woman, however, even in the face of a recalcitrant husband, can do no such thing.

Although many reputable Jewish courts and rabbis shy away from issuing or aiding in the 100-rabbi dispensation, the fact that it’s possible for the husband to obtain a religious divorce — though it can cost thousands of dollars — creates an imbalance. This also gives the husband greater leverage in civil court, for example, if he chooses to make his get conditional upon a better financial or custody arrangement. (A wife can also use the get as leverage, but that is riskier, because her husband can dissolve the marriage without her.)

There are less savory methods for a woman to obtain her husband’s get: Stories abound of “Sopranos”-like pressure being applied to a recalcitrant husband until he acquiesces. This is not common, however, and only happens in very religious, tight communities. Women can also publicly embarrass their husbands until they submit.

In the last 20 years, Jewish feminist organizations have enlisted the community to help solve the problem of agunot. In 1992, the state of New York added an amendment to domestic-relations law known as “The Get law,” which says that if a party refuses to remove a barrier to the other person’s ability to get married, the court can award more property to the person who was thwarted. There’s no such law in California or elsewhere.

For its part, the Rabbincal Council of America, the Orthodox board of rabbis, has adopted a prenuptial agreement that, in the case of divorce, binds both parties to arbitration of the beit din and can force the beit din to follow the property laws of the United States.

It is unclear how many agunot there are in America today, in part because rabbis and activists define the term differently: Rabbis define it narrowly as any woman who cannot obtain a get; activists say any woman who is forced to take a get under duress — and accept a compromised financial or custody settlement in civil court — is an agunah.

Luna Batzri says that right before the divorcing couple was set to go to the beit din, Hagai suddenly asked her for money, and she refused. He then had her locked out of the school, she said, prompting her to go to civil court to clarify their exact financial assets and prevent him from taking the half portion that is legally hers according to California’s communal-property law. According to Luna, for the next two years, as the civil court proceedings continued — and a civil divorce was granted despite the settlement battles — Hagai demanded that if Luna wanted a get, she would have to move all of her civil claims to a beit din, which is considered a binding arbitrator in the United States Court system.

Luna refused to move her claims to religious court.

“When a woman gets married, she knows she’s going into a jail — it’s up to the husband’s good will,” Luna said. “If he decides to be nice, then you’re OK. Otherwise you’re stuck.”

Hagai Batzri tells a different story.

“I never asked her for money,” he said.

Over the last month Hagai remained silent as Luna took her case to the media in Israel. Hagai said he didn’t react to avoid embarrassment to his family’s name. He changed his mind to set the record straight on matters he would have preferred to remain private.

“I wanted to give her a get without any preconditions,” Hagai told The Journal by telephone from his Beverly Hills home, which he shares with his new wife and his son. (Although Luna and Hagai share custody, their son lives with his father). “But she didn’t want to accept it.”

Hagai claims Luna had been unfaithful but never wanted the divorce, which she denies, accusing him, in turn, of the same offenses. Hagai said she wants to ruin him.

“She had the power to destroy me and she destroyed everything,” he said. “I lost everything — my community, my school. I have no car. I have no house. I only have debt.”

Rabbis involved in the case support Hagai’s claim that at first his conditions for the get were not linked to moving all civil claims to religious court.

“Somehow, she believed that she had a better advantage in civil court,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbincal Council of California (RCC), which oversees the main Jewish religious court in the state and handles between 80 and 100 Jewish divorces a year.

“She looks like she’s stuck even though she’s not,” Union said.

It’s hard to determine how much money is at stake in Batzri vs. Batzri; the three-volume civil court record suggests that the amount could range from $0 to $800,000. Luna declines to discuss figures, and Hagai claims his money has been consumed by legal fees. (The original lawyers for both sides have left the case and were unavailable for comment.) Hagai was recently held in contempt of court for not paying spousal and child support — thousands of dollars a month — and performed community service in lieu of jail time.

As the legal battles continued in civil court, Hagai made the get conditional upon Luna’s removing all claims from civil court. And the rabbis couldn’t argue with that, because that is his right.

“Halacha says you can’t litigate in court,” Union said, using the Hebrew word for the body of Jewish law. “If you’re not an Orthodox Jew, I can accept someone saying that they’re not going to be bound by a Torah they don’t believe in. But if you profess to be a Torah-observant Jew, how can you want it any other way?”

Agunah experts disagree.

“No woman in her right mind should go to the beit din to deal with anything but the get,” said Alexandra Leichter, a Los Angeles divorce attorney knowledgeable on Jewish divorce.

Based on her experience as counsel and consultant in hundreds of divorce cases, she said that religious laws favor the man when it comes to property, spousal support and custody. As a legally recognized arbitrating authority, the beit din’s rulings are binding, except on matters of child custody, although sometimes even its custody rulings are upheld by the secular court.

Union said that the beit din does not deserve its reputation among some for favoring men.

“It’s an unfair perception — this attitude that the rabbis are always going to find for the husband,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to combat.” He cannot disclose particulars, he said, but women often do better in beit din than they would in civil court.

Regardless of what led to the impasse, Hagai ultimately wanted an end to litigation in civil court and to deal with the entire case in beit din, and Luna refused to bring all financial matters to the religious court.

“I’m supposed to get my get no matter what,” Luna said.

A standoff like this could have lasted for years, especially given that the RCC does not issue the permission of 100 rabbis. But Hagai took an unusual step, one that confounded and upset many rabbis and others in the Jewish community. He asked the beit din to write a letter stating that Luna refused to appear in court. Union complied, writing that Luna “refused to come to the court and receive a get.”

Union said his letter was intended just to document the facts, not as an official rabbinical document calling her recalcitrant.

Luna said Union knew what he was doing and was a party to her ultimate betrayal — the remarriage of her husband.

Hagai took Union’s letter to Rabbi Moshe Ben Zaken, a well-known Sephardic rabbi, who sent Luna three more summons to appear before his own beit din, a religious court with an address listed in Beverly Hills. Zaken’s beit din, unlike the one run by the RCC, is not recognized by religious authorities in Israel. After Luna refused to show up, Ben Zaken, basing his decision on Union’s letter, issued a statement allowing Hagai to remarry.

To be sure, Hagai received the permission of one rabbi, not 100, as required by Jewish law. However, Ben Zaken asserts that Sephardim are not subject to the rule because, in fact, Sephardic men are allowed to take more than one wife at a time. The Torah stipulates a man may take two wives. In the year 1000, however, Rabbi Gershom Ben Judah forbade this, a prohibition that was not upheld by Sephardim. Today, Sephardim practice monogamy out of custom and out of respect for the laws of their home countries, but Ben Zaken maintains they are not bound by it.

Ben Zaken’s permission for Hagai to remarry has enraged many in the Sephardic community here.

“We tried to represent the community as an honest, modern ethical Sephardic world,” said Rabbi Danny Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, who, like many rabbis, had never heard of this halachic ruling being applied before. “It unfortunately does a lot of damage to the Sephardic community.”

Nevertheless, Hagai Batzri found a way around the impasse. He could remarry. And he didn’t even have to give his first wife a get.

As things stand, Hagai Batzri is legally remarried, according to both civil and Jewish law.

“No one is suggesting that his new marriage is not valid,” said Union, who insists he was an unwitting accomplice to a halachic chicanery of which he does not approve.

And Luna Batzri might be worse off than ever, because the one piece of leverage she had over her husband — preventing him from remarrying — is gone.

But the situation is far from over. Luna swears she will fight on, in the court and in the court of public opinion. In the last few weeks she has plastered Los Angeles shuls and kosher markets with signs criticizing Hagai; she has berated rabbis for allowing him into their synagogues; and she has enlisted feminist and rabbinical organizations in her cause.

“I know that whatever I did was 100 percent right. I don’t have any doubt about this divorce,” Luna said.

She plans to make him pay for putting her in a virtual prison as an agunah.

“If he’s going to put me in a jail, I’m going to put him in jail, too,” she said, by filing contempt cases for not paying support. (The next hearing is set for April). The only way out, she said, is for Hagai to consent to an unconditional get.

But Hagai said he won’t give in: “After all the damage she has caused me, going to the media and making me into the me’agen [one who imprisons his wife] now she will have to go to rabbinical court, and they will be the judges.”

Los Angeles rabbis have met to discuss how to proceed — but have not decided on any course of action.

“It’s at a standstill. Someone’s going to have to budge,” Union said. “You have the irresistible force and the immovable object.”

Among those concerned is Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox congregation B’nai David-Judea, who spoke about the Batzri case last week at Shabbat morning services at his synagogue. Kanefsky summed up his argument in an interview with The Journal: “The transcendent point — the only point here — is that remarriage without an unconditional get being made available is a precedent that as a community we should not tolerate, because it leads to very bad things.”

 

The Agunah: A Modern-Day Nightmare


 

A couple of years ago I received two back-to-back phone calls in my office: The first, from a 21-year-old ultra-Orthodox woman who had escaped her physically abusive 6-month long marriage, only to find herself trapped two years later because her husband refuses to give her a Jewish divorce (a get). She can never remarry or have children as long as her husband remains recalcitrant.

The second call was from a Modern Orthodox young woman who was ready to marry the man of her dreams — only to discover a few weeks before the marriage that her rabbi refused to conduct the ceremony after he learned that the groom was a mamzer (illegitimate child of an incestuous relationship), because his mother had failed to obtain a get before marrying the groom’s father.

These two cases vividly illustrate the current problems of the modern day agunah (a woman chained to an unwanted marriage), because halacha (Jewish law) gives the husband the sole, unfettered power of divorce. While under Ashkenazic tradition a woman can withhold her “consent” to such a divorce, the remedies available to the victim of a recalcitrant husband or wife differ substantially. A woman whose husband refuses to grant her a get can never remarry and have children from another man because if she does so, her children and all their progeny are considered mamzerim, who are forbidden to marry any Jew other than other mamzerim. In contrast, a man whose wife refuses to “consent” to the get, has options: he can obtain the consent of 100 rabbis (a heter) to remarry without the wife’s consent, or if he does remarry without a heter, his children from the subsequent marriage do not bear the stigma of being mamzerim. (In Sephardic tradition, a husband may even divorce his wife without her consent, eliminating his need for a heter.)

These disparate consequences, coupled with the husband’s exclusive power to terminate the marriage, have resulted in a modern-day nightmare to Orthodox women. The power to condemn their wives to remain chained in marriage, to a man who often remarries without granting his wife a get, has spawned an entire marketplace for extortions. Men have demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars, waiver of the wife’s rights to spousal support and even custody of children they have abused, in exchange for the wife’s right to remarry. This bartering for the wife’s freedom has become so universal that, unbidden, some rabbis even begin a get process by asking the wife what she is willing to give her husband in exchange for the get.

While remedies have been suggested and some implemented, none have cured the basic ill resulting from this gross imbalance of power. In Israel, laws have been enacted allowing incarceration and forfeiture of driver and professional licenses of recalcitrant husbands. Most recently, an Israeli court awarded a woman monetary damages for her husband’s refusal to give her a get for more than 12 years. But these laws fall pitifully short of a final solution. First, these laws are unavailable to women outside of Israel. Second, some men have opted to remain jailed or do without their licenses rather than give their wives a get. Even the judgment of monetary damages was a mere Pyrrhic victory — while she has a judicial decree for money (which she may never be able to collect), the courts could not force her husband to give her the get, and thus she remains an agunah.

Other suggested solutions have met with only limited success. Many conscientious rabbis now refuse to perform a marriage ceremony unless the couple first signs a prenuptial agreement authorizing the beit din (Jewish court) to award daily monetary support (or damages) for each day the husband refuses to give a get or the wife refuses her consent. Such prenuptial agreements, however, must meet the civil requirements of the state where it’s executed — a condition of which rabbis are often unaware. Additionally, such prenuptial agreements have the same flaw as any of the Israeli laws. No prenuptial agreement can force a recalcitrant husband to give a get — it can only award monetary sums to the wife, but it can still leave her trapped. A very poor or a very rich man can afford to disregard the monetary damages he would suffer under the agreement, and the opportunity for extortion or revenge inherent in the husband’s unfettered power to withhold the get cannot be eliminated. Finally, there are many rabbis who refuse to mandate the signing of such a prenuptial agreement, and an Israeli rabbi recently even decreed such prenuptial agreements invalid. Clearly, the prenuptial agreement is not universally accepted nor does it result in a global solution.

More recently, some have advocated “annulment” of the marriage as a way to eliminate the agunah problem. But this solution has been met with tremendous opposition in the Orthodox rabbinical community. Some rabbis who have granted or advocated annulments in such cases have been marginalized and their status in the Orthodox community threatened. In one recent case, a rabbi who granted annulment to a woman who had been an Agunah for more than 10 years was publicly condemned and his rulings in other cases delegitimized by another rabbi.

The lack of consensus among Orthodox rabbis on a permanent global end to such unfettered misuse of the husband’s power has led to homespun solutions. Some have advocated the use of nonobservant witnesses at Orthodox weddings to assure that an Orthodox get would not be necessary in the event the marriage fails. Others have simply ignored the law and remarried without the get, leaving it to the next generations to untangle the mamzer problems thereby created.

There is, however, concurrence on one thing — a permanent solution must be found to eliminate the agunah problem. The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) has begun an agunah-awareness campaign this year, beginning with the Fast of Esther. JOFA hopes to generate education, discussion and resolution. While many might dismiss this issue as just the “women’s problem,” it should be an equal cause for concern for every Orthodox man who has a sister, a daughter or a mother. They are all potential targets for extortion or imprisonment in an insufferable marriage.

Alexandra Leichter is a Beverly Hills family law attorney, and is a member of the Westwood Village Synagogue.

 

Other Voices


The evening following the final session of theSecond International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, I attendeda small family dinner and celebrated the wedding of a SatmarChassidic couple. Among the guests were men with long curledpayot (it’spronounced “payyes” there), and some wearing shtreimels (the fur hat worn bysome Chassidic men). All of the women’s heads were covered with wigs,and some even wore a small pillbox hat atop it, according to thedecree of their respective rabbis. The women were elegantly (butmodestly) attired in unrevealing clothing and were segregated fromtheir men by tall walls. While the men sang joyously, the womengossiped. When the men rose to dance, most of the women werevicariously reveled by staring at them through the cracks in thewall. (Of course, it is forbidden for the men to watch the womendance, and not one single male deigned to take even a quick”peek.”)

The contrast between the ideas expressed anddebated at the conference just a few hours earlier and the interestsof those 60 Chassidic family members at the dinner could not possiblyhave been greater. What could the Orthodox feminists offer thefervently Orthodox?

Indeed, I discovered that only one person at thedinner had even heard of the conference, and she was under themisconception that the reason for the event was because women wantedto change the Torah.

Wishing to debunk that fallacy, I wondered how Icould possibly communicate to these women the concerns of those 2,000attendees at the conference. When I finally told them of thefeminists’ concerns about the agunah issue (the fate of a womanunable to obtain a Jewish divorce unless she accedes to the demands,including extortion, of her husband), I saw a glimpse of recognitionon the faces of these Chassidic women. It was obvious that they, too,suffer from this indignity.

When I mentioned the issues of domestic violencediscussed at the conference, the women at the dinner told me shockingstories of incest, pederasty, and sexual and physical abuse of thewomen in their own insular community — the very heart of Boro Parkand Williamsburg. Now we were speaking a common language.

Indeed, the conference did address issues ofgender bias in the language of prayers and traditional texts, thehalacha of women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, the expansion of women’sroles in the synagogues, et al. But these concepts were as foreign toChassidic women as a visit from a Martian.

Similarly, the subjects covering Talmudiceducation for high school girls would have been useless in the Satmarcommunity, where the girls’ schools do not even allow textual studyof the Pentateuch and the Commentaries, let alone the Talmud. Thesessions on rabbinic ordination of women and the eliminating of kolisha (women’s singing voices, which Orthodox men may not hear) wouldbe equally alien to such fervently Orthodox women.

But the sessions on domestic violence and theplenary conference on the agunah would have been lauded — notnecessarily because all would agree on the solutions proposed, butbecause all women in the Orthodox world can identify with theseconcerns, whether or not they wear a wig, cover their arms, or danceat segregated celebrations.

The commonalities, rather than the differences ofideology, were the central focus of the conference. There was trulysomething for everyone. The standing-room-only sessions attested tothe success of the endeavor. The attendance doubled from last year’sconference, which further proved that the identification of feminismwith Orthodoxy was no longer perceived as an oxymoron.

Has the concept of feminist Orthodoxy reached thelevel of the mainstream? It is highly unlikely that Chassidic womenor traditionalist Orthodox women will ever embrace that terminologyand adopt it as their own. But feminism, in and of itself, iscertainly not defined equally in the world. Traditional women’ssightline-impaired Orthodox synagogues may alienate some ModernOrthodox women, yet, to others, this type of separation creates asource of spiritual comfort. While some are offended by the sexistlanguage in prayers, others embrace it purely for its rich tradition.While some demand acknowledgment of women’s roles in the tradition byadding the mother’s name during various celebrations or honors,others are content to accept the status quo.

However, the impatience with rabbinicfoot-dragging on the resolution of the agunah problem, and thefrustration with rabbis insensitive to the plight of battered womenis a uniting force that fuels the movement.

As further attestation to the success of theconference, mainstream Orthodox rabbis, not previously identifiedwith the feminist cause, spoke at the conference and discredited someof the many myths of meta-halacha. One couldn’t help but laugh when arabbi described how a synagogue, during the middle of this century,was forbidden by its rabbi to use electricity (on the weekdays)because electricity had never been used in his grandfather’ssynagogue.

It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that allthe goals set at last year’s conference had been achieved. But theprogress made was tangible and substantial. Women’s voices arebeginning to be heard in the search for halachic solutions to variousproblems affecting women. Two Modern Orthodox synagogues have hiredfemale “congregational interns,” whose job descriptions closely mimicthose of an assistant rabbi as counselor and teacher (one of themeven gives sermons from the pulpit). For the first time in Israel, agroup of women are about to receive certification to interpret thelaw (to become a posek) in the area of Niddah (ritual purity) — awelcome innovation to women who are reluctant to address these highlyprivate issues to a male rabbi.

But the most significant progress reported hasbeen the single new solution to the agunah issue. Rabbi EmanuelRackman, whose courage to withstand the enormous rabbinic oppositionwas lauded even by those who disagreed with him, described themethods used by his year-old beit din — of annulling the marriage onfraud grounds, thus eliminating the husband’s power to extort for aget (Jewish divorce). Not surprisingly, this beit din has beensubjected to enormous criticism, and there has been no other beitdin, to date, to follow suit. (As one fervently Orthodox rabbi wasreputed to privately admit, if they freed all women who were beatenby their husbands, there would be too many divorces.)

The most vocal opponents in the fervently Orthodoxrabbinic community were invited, but refused to attend theconference.

The forum did provide the opposing voices of twoModern Orthodox rabbis. One feared the “annulment” solution, claimingthat it would place all marriages in jeopardy. Instead, he lauded theJerusalem beit din, which reputedly freed “tens” of women a year bythreatening to jail or withhold drivers’ licenses from recalcitranthusbands. (Of course, this rabbi neglected to mention that theestimated 5,000-plus agunot in Israel would have to wait as long as500 years for their freedom at the pace of the Jerusalem beit din.)Another rabbi’s objections to the annulment solution was his concernthat this “quick” progress, without the “process” of enlisting thesupport of many other Orthodox rabbis, is doomed to failure. But whatappears to rabbis as being too hasty in resolving painful women’sissues is seen as slow motion to Orthodox feminists.

If there could be a short summation of thistwo-day conference, it would be the urgent need for Orthodoxfeminists to repair the world (tikkun olam) — so that 51 percent ofthe Orthodox population (that is, the women) is not shoved silentlyinto the realm of passivity in the face of oppression; so that womenwho wish to pray in a tallit and read the Torah at the Western Wallmay do so; so that religious women scholars will be taken equallyseriously with their male counterparts in areas of education,interpretation of halacha, and spiritual quest; so that Jewish lawwould no longer sanction a man’s right to withhold the get or allowhim to extort his wife for a Jewish divorce; so that the limits ofhalacha are stretched to ensure that Orthodox women need not feelthey are more valued contributors to the secular world than they areto the religious one.

Finally, it was perceived that only the feministOrthodox appeared to have the courage and the ability to reach out tothose on the religious right and the religious left, and they’re theones who appeared to be the torchbearers for tikkun olam between theOrthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Whether thesegoals are attainable in the near future, or indeed ever, willprobably be the subject of the next International Conference onFeminism and Orthodoxy.

Alexandra Leichter is a family law attorney inBeverly Hills and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood VillageSynagogue.