Rape, the Agunah problem, and Bernard Jackson

June 21, 2013 7:05 am 10 comments

Women of the Wall wearing prayer shawls (tallit).

The treatment of women around the world today remains a blot on humanity. That an Indian judge can counsel a rape victim to marry her abuser beggars belief. The Bible compared rape to murder. The narratives of the rapes of Dinah in Genesis and then Tamar in Samuel 2, whatever else they show, clearly condemn rape. Now it is true the Bible also allows for the rapist to marry the victim; but, ladies and gentlemen, that was three thousand years ago. Consent became embedded in Jewish law before the Common Era. Sadly, half the world and its religions haven’t progressed since then!

Women didn’t get the vote in the UK until 1918, and in the USA in 1919. Switzerland didn’t give the vote to women until 1971–even then, one state held out until 1990. Women were not allowed to take Oxford degrees until 1920. In some prehistoric groups, arguments continue about the size of the female brain and the limitations of female intellect. Nowadays it is clear that women are even more able to gain academic degrees than men. In the USA, four women graduate for every three men. They achieve the highest of offices, run countries, control major companies. And if their numbers at the top are proportionately low, let us not forget that in addition to holding down jobs, most of them actually carry, bear, and rear children.

I was brought up in patriarchal society and a patriarchal home. I have to admit that the Jewish community (as well as the secular) reinforced this absurd and damaging mindset. Modern values have indeed brought us progress (as well as negative side effects). Yet I am ashamed to say that in the very center of my religion women are still treated as secondclass citizens. I concede that the innovations the rabbis introduced two thousand years ago to protect women and preserve their dignity were way in advance of the rest of the world. But in recent generations we have fallen a long way behind. Very few things make me more ashamed of my own religion than the fact that women are still subject to men on matters of divorce. The ensuing blackmail they are too often subjected to is a gross stain on our tradition. The stain of the Agunah was once upon a time simply a matter of men disappearing through force majeur. Now it is overwhelmingly the result of male vindictiveness.

Biblical law also insists that men only inherit their parents estate (unless there are no males). And that technically remains the law. But for a very long time Jewish law has offered plenty of ways round it, such as allocating assets before one’s death or a device for dividing up the estate equitably known as “The Wishes of a Dying Man.” But the issue of the Agunah remains intractable.

Of course I know most religious women are happy with their lot, and most religious husbands are considerate, caring, and supportive. And I recognize that women, too, can use laws for their own benefit and often exercise as malevolent a power as the men. But a religion, any moral system, must be judged by how it treats the weakest, the most disadvantaged of its members, and on this score we are failing.

The Jewish Law Association has just published the proceedings of the Fordham Conference of 2012. There the noble, brave, and persistent Professor Bernard Jackson, one of the unsung moral heroes of our halachic age, presented the summation of years of serious academic by the Agunah Research Unit of the University of Manchester. With little fanfare, he and his team explored every aspect and possible halachic solutions to the problem and offered answers. You can see the work at this link. In my opinion, it is a scandal and a desecration of God’s Name that two years later nothing has changed.

There is also a fascinating piece by Rachel Levmore on “the Agreement of Mutual Respect”, a specifically Israeli attempt to solve the problem. Nevertheless, the refusal of halachic authorities to tackle the issue directly and forcefully instead of relying on secular systems to clear up the mess remains a moral and halachic failure.

It is equally depressing that the late Rav Eliyashiv sought long and to the end of his life to resolve the issue yet sadly all his work ended with his passing.

Without a Get, freely given by her husband, a woman cannot remarry. As secularism destroyed the power and authority of autonomous Jewish courts (not necessarily always a bad thing) many husbands simply refused to give religious divorces because they disdained the religious world and wanted to escape it or ignore its demands on them. Then, as commercialism infected everyone, even the most outwardly pious of husbands suddenly realized they could gain financial advantage by refusing to give a religious divorce. As the secular world made divorce easier, more Jewish women gained their freedom judicially from abusive, oppressive, or incompatible husbands. But they then often found themselves tied by their inability to remarry because their husbands blackmailed them over a religious divorce.

You might have thought the combined genius of religious brainpower could resolve the problem. But no such thing happened. In my opinion this is because any pressure seen to be coming from a liberal secular world is perceived as automatically suspect and antireligious. So the Orthodox rabbinic leadership–even its supposedly most open, articulate, and “modern” voices–have just clammed up. If ever there was proof of the moral failure of religious leadership, this issue must be it.

One solution was to use secular courts to enforce Jewish law–an abdication of our responsibility to clean up our own messes. Modern Orthodoxy has tried valiantly to deal with the issue through prenuptials. But the Haredi world has refused to make any concessions.

I am a great believer in equality before the law, and in 99% of Jewish civil law this is so. Just not in matters of evidence and divorce. Regardless of the historical and social reasons, the fact is that nowadays this is simply morally unacceptable and makes us appear ethically deficient rather than “a light to the nations.”

Equality does not mean sameness. Men and women are not, as a rule, the same. In religions, as in other areas such as sport, there are different competitions and systems. I think it has been a disservice to try to merge male and female forms of prayer. At the same time I think it a wonderful development that in the realms of Torah study the opportunities for women are fast closing the gap. I find the circus of Women of the Wall silly and counterproductive because they are descending to the very politicized and corrupt way of dealing with spiritual issues that now mars Israeli society and makes us a laughingstock. I believe most strongly that women must be able to choose to pray as they wish. What is going on at the Wall is nothing more than a political circus on both sides. I am a pluralist in the sense of allowing for freedom of expression and practice. But this fuss over rituals is a side game.

The real battle, that affects lives, not options, is over the Agunah. Until that issue is addressed, I have to say that I love my religion but I am ashamed of its religious leadership for failing to tackle the issue head-on. And I am deeply depressed that Professor Jackson and his team have received neither the kudos nor the reaction they deserve.

10 Comments

  • most of this article is tripe, either for the sake of filling column space, or proof of the writer’s bona fides.

    the heart of the matter is that there are serious issues, ranging from agunot to conversion to sin’at hinam afflicting the jewish people, and no halakhic authority with the guts to address any of them.

    the few that speak up, despite political and economic pressures, are ignored, often because they wear the wrong kind of hat or kippah.

  • One must be very careful in what he wishes. Most social changes for the betterment of our mixed up society has come with a toll which is disastrous. The issues of liberating women was a noble cause, but look at the toll it caused upon society. Men & women have become more promiscuous sexually with out having any responsibility for their action. Ergo, the destruction of the family unit with high divorce rates and abandonment of the woman and the children. Women today want to get married for their posterity with out assuming their husband’s name. What does this mean? It means that there is no commitment to the family unit. It shows that women can also take on a duplicitous roll in showing her internal community as being married and to her external community or profession as an independent woman which is free of the “so called yolk” of being attached. This is an inducement of seeking affairs with out feeling any guilt.

    When society challenges the moral ethics of laws and cultures which has been successful for over two thousand years by interjecting mixed up egalitarian solutions, then the results have proven to weaken the religious body. Your example of the mixed up Women of the Wall is perfect. If Judaism and its Halachic Laws are an embarrassment to you, then you should leave your faith and join the successful liberalization churches of the Christians or join the Muslims. Their society has always claimed to be superior to Judaism.

    Historically speaking, the rights of women to vote yielded disaster to their respective nations. Look at the disaster of the female Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. She led her country to catastrophic war which almost lost the nation. Same with Indira Ghandi. Ok, Margret Thatcher was more successful, but she did not tote the left wing liberation theology in which most women carry as a harbinger on their shoulder. Women’s right to vote opened opportunities in the work place, but at what social cost? Divorce rates are high, family growth down, illicit affairs are sky high, social needs are up due to the high rate of illegitimate children, more demand for social service which are enslaving our society to higher taxation for all form of benefits. I imagine, the Haredi community is defective and the later examples are successful. “NOT.”

    I agree that the concept of a Jewish woman attaining a ghet is encumbering but you don’t throw the baby with the dirty bath water. Perhaps preserving, rededicating and enshrining the Torah way of life should be heralded instead of picking it apart to fit ones contemporary feel good non-nonsensical life style. The Rabbis are aware of the defects who exploit women and they are gradually revisiting avenues to make their lives more wholesome, but they will not do it for the benefit of man made liberalization who seek quick fixes which are demanded by our impulsive non-committal society.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Asher
      Thank you for your comments. I entirely agree. A great deal of the world around us is Pagan and should not be emulated.There is a lot wrong with Western secular values and the issue of women is an excellent example of how unforseen tensions and pressures emerge from changing circumstances and legislation.

      But the issue is not work. After all many if not most Charedi wives work to support their husbands or because they want to and need to. I am concerned only about situations where a woman can be and is being blackmailed or the cases referred to here of a woman unable to remarry for thirty years. How can that possibly be acceptable to any honest human being?
      I am equally upset by situations where men are victimized, but in that case it is not halacha that is the cause of the problem. Here it is and it could be dealt with.
      I do not understand how any frum Yirei Shamayim Rov can tolerate this. I just don’t get it. And I hate to say but I believe that if they were in this position and the tables turned they would do something about it.
      I know we have no Hillel’s any more to overturn ancient laws or at leat find ways round them. And I know any lenient Rov is in fear of being besmirched for stepping out of line. But if “the cry of the widow” reaches HaShem, how much more so must the agony of the Agunah.
      J

  • Binah Bindell

    Excellent article. Important issue that must be addressed and remedied.
    It’s an embarrassment and a grave injustice to perpetuate this situation that is hurting Jewish women and children as a blind eye is turned away from a
    Man that uses religion to harm. How do we respect ‘ Rabbi’s as they condone this behavior as silence speaks volumes.

  • Erika Potasinski

    How sad it is to still be discriminated. The very religious Jews still consider a woman one step behind. The truth is the very religious Jews spend part of life
    praying. Their wives work not only at home, many times they are the breadwinners.

  • I am a Jewish woman of Chassidic background though no longer at all orthodox nor even a believer, so perhaps my comment is an expected one and of no particular interest. However I would like to join, (what must no doubt be the majority opinion) with Jeremy Rosen in condemning the extraordinarily outdated practice of Agunah. Aside from questions of equality it is cruel almost to the point of barbarity. I had a colleague once who was a victim of this caprice when her legally EX husband refused a Get. It took years of grovelling on her part—much to the detriment of the children—for him to change his mind. Such an attitude towards half the human race is completely unacceptable and no doubt contributes to us often being viewed with contempt by right-thinking people.

  • Please can you clear up this sentence, something is obviously missing: “It is equally depressing that the late ought long and to the end of his life to resolve the issue yet sadly all his work ended with his passing.” The late who?

    With Rabbis like Ovadia Yosef around whose pronouncements clearly show his contempt for women and the deep rifts in the orthodox world, it is highly unlikely that a solution will be found. Few orthodox rabbis are as courageous as Jeremy Rosen.

  • I waited for a Get for 34 years. I still grieve over my lost opportunities.

    • Eve
      I cannot begin to tell you how sad and pained I am to hear about your ordeal. This cannot possibly be t he will of the Almighty.Or of Torat Hashemite Temimah.
      Jeremy

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