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Jewish Journal

Why we all need to care about Jewish divorce law

by Esther Macner

February 15, 2012 | 3:22 pm

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.

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