Monday, July 1, 2013

Musings on the Agunah Summit

A rally in Los Angeles pressuring a man
to give his wife a get.
Last Monday, I had the privilege to attend the Agunah Summit. (You can find my notes on it here.) Co-sponsored by The NYU Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), it was a full day of programming dedicated to resolving the agunah crisis. An agunah is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (divorce papers), thereby chaining her to a dead marriage and keeping her from going forward with her life. Considered a human rights violation by CEDAW, agunah is clearly an immoral manipulation of halakha (Jewish law) that must be ended immediately.

Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, director of the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar-Ilan University, presented horrifyingly high statistics of get abuse. According to Halperin-Kaddari’s survey of 320 divorcing women in Israel, 1 in 3 were subject to threats of get refusal, and 70% of women who had divorce settlements to their disadvantage that deviates from normal laws were subject to get refusal. It disgusts and shocks me that seemingly normal, upstanding men of the Jewish community would participate in something as inhumane as get abuse, which is a form of domestic violence.

My hope in mankind was restored when I saw all of the men at the summit who were dedicated to ending the injustice of agunah. It was really heartening to see that so many men care about this issue, even though agunah usually only directly affects women. Agunot have a lot of male allies, in the rabbinate as well as among the laypeople.

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz’s keynote speech about the moral challenge that agunah presents to halakhic Judaism was the most compelling presentation of the day. Professor Dershowitz was brief, eloquent, articulate, and arguably the best speaker at the summit. His dedication to ending agunah shows that you don’t have to be a feminist activist to champion the cause; you simply have to care about human rights.

As I am not a halakhic scholar or full-time agunah activist, I was unable to fully understand a lot of the halakhic solutions that were discussed at the summit. However, I didn’t need to be a gemarakup (Talmudic genius) to understand that five different resolutions for agunot, all of which have been employed by reliable batei din (rabbinical courts), were presented.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi and agunah advocate, said that he disagrees with Blu Greenberg’s belief that “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” He does believe that “there is a rabbinic won’t,” as there are so many viable halakhic techniques that could resolve agunot that are not being utilized. Riskin believes they aren’t being used because dayanim (rabbinical court judges) “are so wedded to their sefarim [religious books] that they can’t see people suffering.” It frustrates me that there are agunot who could be freed with relative ease, but are left chained by insensitive dayanim. “The problem isn’t halakha, it’s the dayanim,” Riskin said.

As an action-oriented person in a room full of my kind, it was a pleasure to see that everyone wanted to leave the summit with practical resolutions for agunot. Susan Weiss, founder of the Center for Women’s Justice, felt that the only surefire way to avoid agunah is to avoid halakhic marriage. Most of the audience, me included, was dismayed by her suggestion. It’s an unreasonable solution to propose, especially considering that Joseph Weiler, director of the Tikvah Center, stated that the summit would be built on the principle of “a commitment to halakhic normativity.” The whole reason women become agunot is because of their desire to receive a halakhically-sound get. Accordingly, we need to figure out a halakhic way to help these women.

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA (Organization for the Resolution of Agunot), had a more realistic solution to offer: a halakhic prenuptial agreement mandating the giving of a get. “In the 400 cases I’ve worked on, I’ve never seen a couple with a valid prenup where the get was not given in a timely manner,” he said. “It’s been 100% effective.” As few couples actually sign prenups, it’s imperative to encourage rabbinical organizations like the RCA and IRF to standardize a prenup and forbid their members from officiating at weddings without them.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, said that not only will he not officiate at a wedding without a prenup, but he will not even attend a wedding without one. “Laypeople have to do this too,” he urged. The audience and panelists were not so receptive to his suggestion. Although I agree that it’s unfair to expect people to boycott weddings without prenups, the idea deserves some credit. I would never stay away from friends’ weddings just because they don’t have prenups, but I plan on informing my newly-engaged friends about the importance of prenups, and will do everything in my power to get them and their fiancés to sign one. As Stern said, “friends don’t let friends get married without a halakhic prenup.”

Throughout the conference, several presenters discussed creating a special beit din that would be sympathetic to agunot and strive to find solutions for them. Although a beit din like this did exist in the past, it was not widely accepted and disbanded years ago. Consequently, a new one - one whose resolutions are considered kosher by most of the Orthodox community - could and should be established. Rivka Haut, longtime agunah activist and founder of Agunah Inc., was inspired by the possibility of this new beit din. “I’m leaving here optimistic. I think there is a chance now for real change,” she said. Haut, among many other activists and laypeople in attendance, urged the rabbis in the room to create this beit din. Fortunately, many seemed amenable.

Blu Greenberg, mother of Orthodox feminism and founder of JOFA, closed the conference by reading the laws that Moses commanded the Jewish people at the same time as divorce, like helping a fallen neighbor, not delivering an escaped slave, and paying day laborers on the same day they did their work. “The context is about protecting the downtrodden,” Greenberg said. “Think of the Torah intent and God’s will as you advocate for justice for agunot.”

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