Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Agunot and Converts

I’ve been following Heshy Fried at his blog, Frum Satire, for a couple of years at this point. It was actually the first blog I followed on a regular basis. I like Heshy because he really sees things as they are and calls it like it is. He posted this article a little while ago, equating men who deny their wives a get (divorce papers) and thereby make them into agunot (chained wives) to rabbis who won’t give converts their official conversion papers.

At first, I was highly offended by this, and all prepared to leave a scathing comment on the post. As I began writing my response, though, I couldn’t think of any argument to counter Heshy’s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that agunah isn’t much different than unofficial converts.

In Judaism, how divorce works is that the husband has to give his wife a get. While this seems sexist and horrendous today, the law’s original intent was to protect women from quickie divorces that were popular in the ancient Middle East. (When I say quickie, I mean quickie. In one culture, all a man had to do was bring his wife outside, say “I divorce you” or something to that effect three times, and they would be divorced.) A get gives women a certain amount of money (specified in the marriage papers), as well as other rights. Today’s men have twisted this pro-woman measure, extorting their wives for thousands of dollars and rights like children’s custody, in order to give a get. Without a get, women are unable to remarry and go on with their lives. As a result, agunah has become a big issue among today’s Jews.

With Orthodox conversion, a person has to take classes about Judaism for several years. Would-be converts often have to travel or move to Israel in this process. Once done, they have to find a rabbi willing to convert them. (For men, this means circumcision and a dip in the mikvah (ritual bath). Women obviously only need to do the mikvah part.) Finding the rabbi is often extremely difficult; converts like Yisrael Campbell (star of Circumcise Me and husband of prominent Jewish feminist Avital Campbell Hochstein), who have moved to Israel in order to convert Orthodox, have struggled at this step. While Mr. Campbell found his rabbi and got his official conversion papers afterwards, many people are denied the papers. Without them, even if a person has gone in the mikvah and is a Jew according to halakha (Jewish law), he or she can’t function as a full Jew, not being able to marry Jewish or have a Jewish child.

So at the end of the day, are agunot and unofficial converts that different? Neither can function as a full Jew within society, as neither can get married nor perpetuate the Jewish nation further. Unfortunately, both are issues that get too little lip service, let alone action, from people in authority positions who could actually change them. This lack of accomplishment needs to be altered. Fortunately, there are some amazing organizations and individuals that are working for that goal.

Agunah Advocates:

Conversion Advocates:

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