“Asking [an agunah] to give up her religion is asking her to accept her abuse and have it extend through all aspects of her life and her sense of self. It’s pointing the finger in the direction of the victim rather than the aggressor.” But is it?
Last week, Newsweek published a feature article summarizing the case against haredi Rabbi Mendel Epstein and his gang, which allegedly kidnapped, beat up and even tortured recalcitrant husbands who refused to give their wives an Orthodox Jewish bill of divorce known as a "get." What Epstein – who is currently on trial in federal court in New Jersey – did wasn't really altruistic; he charged women close to $100,000 each for his gang's services.
A woman whose husband refuses to give a get is trapped in the marriage, even if the husband no longer lives at home, even if he has shacked up with another woman, even if he has remarried under an Orthodox legal fiction known as a heter mea rabbanim. She is known as an agunah (plural: agunot) cannot under halakha (Orthodox Jewish law) remarry or even just hook up with another man, and any children she conceives and bears with another man are deemed to be mamzerim (bastards), and those children and their descendants for all eternity are forbidden by halakha to marry 'pure' Jews.
While there isn't anything new in the Newsweek article, there is a quote that is worth discussing:
…Those outside Orthodox Judaism often wonder why agunot don’t simply leave their community and move on. “People say, ‘Why doesn’t she just forget this backwards patriarchal system? She has her civil divorce!’” says [Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot]. “Our response to that is, what fundamentally underlies get refusal is power and control. Get refusal is a form of domestic abuse.
“Asking her to give up her religion is asking her to accept her abuse and have it extend through all aspects of her life and her sense of self,” Stern continues. “It’s pointing the finger in the direction of the victim rather than the aggressor.”…
I would argue that while what recalcitrant husbands are doing is a form of abuse and often even criminal – many of these husbands won't give a get until they're given the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars they're demanding from their wife's family and/or get preferred custody arrangements the family court would never otherwise give – for generations women have known that this could be their fate, and if they are haredi they have also known that the rabbis they follow have done nothing to protect them from it.
Choosing to marry in a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony without a halakhic prenuptial agreement in place to reduce the possibility of a husband committing this type of abuse and extortion is a gamble an increasing number of women lose.
In other words, while no one thinks this will happen to them when they marry, the fact that it could happen to them and has already happened to many others is well known.
Women who choose to live under this system are choosing to live with this possibility always hanging over their heads.
As for Stern's contention that telling these women to leave Orthodoxy is “[a]sking her to give up her religion…[and] to accept her abuse and have it extend through all aspects of her life and her sense of self; It’s pointing the finger in the direction of the victim rather than the aggressor,” my argument would be that while that may sometimes be true, in most cases, telling these women to find liberal halakhic solutions to their problem or to walk away from Orthodox Judaism altogether is really the responsible thing to do.
And an even more responsible thing would be to encourage all single women and teenage girls in any Jewish community that does not mandate halakhic prenuptial agreements and other steps to protect women to leave that community before getting engaged.
But even the best halakhic prenups are not foolproof, and determined husbands – especially, but not exclusively, if they are wealthy – can easily get around them.
There are actual solutions to this agunah problem that work under halakha and work under US, British, Belgian, etc., law, as well. All it takes are rabbis with enough empathy and the beitzim (balls) to make the changes happen.
In other words, the agunah problem really is a rabbi problem. Rabbis created it. Cowardly rabbis prolong it. But women are not allowed to be rabbis in Orthodoxy, and only women suffer from it.
If that isn't a good enough reason for women (and caring men) to walk away from Orthodox Judaism of all stripes, I don't know what is. Perhaps a growing exodus of women from Orthodoxy will force the change across all of Orthodox Judaism that is both so desperately needed and so long overdue.
[A special hat tip: Joel Katz for pointing out Stern's quote.]