Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Rape, the Agunah problem, and Bernard Jackson

June 21, 2013 7:05 am 11 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.

11 Comments

  • Be very careful about using the Beth Din of America for your GET or other religious issue. Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz both have seruv’s against them. Prior judges on this court have had a multitude of problems. Read more about it at http://www.thebethdin.com. Too many Beth Dins are corrupt and dishonest. As for ORA, it is only a Mamzer factory.

  • 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

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    Playboy Columnist Calls Israel’s ‘Burning Man’ Festival ‘Ultimate Revenge on Hitler’

    The Israeli version of the famed American Burning Man music festival is the “ultimate revenge on Hitler,” according to a column in Playboy magazine on Thursday. In his column, Jeff Weiss also took note of the fact that Midburn — a five-day bacchanal in the Negev Desert, self-described as an event celebrating “a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression” — began on June 8, the day of the Sarona Market terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which left four people dead. Weiss asked rhetorically, “What could needle the mustached […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Author of New Book on Connection Between Jews, Punk Rock Describes Bands Flinging Gefilte Fish, Bagels at Audience (INTERVIEW)

    Some punk rockers integrate their Jewish identity into their music through food, the author of a new book on the topic told The Algemeiner on Wednesday. Michael Croland, author of Oy Oy Oy Gevalt! Jews and Punk, described the way different musicians express this connection. “One band is known for throwing gefilte fish in the mosh pit, and people at its concert slide around on it while dancing,” he recounted. “Another used to drink Manischewitz [sweet kosher] wine out of a shofar [the ram […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    Scottish Soccer Club Manager Hails ‘Fantastic’ Jewish-State Visit After Victory Over Israeli Team (VIDEO)

    The manager of Scotland’s Celtic soccer club lauded Israel, after his team won a match against the Jewish state’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night. Brendan Rodgers said at a post-match press conference: On behalf of the players, the people of Celtic and Scotland, Israel’s been fantastic for us. We came out here on Sunday, [and from] the hotel, the staff, we’ve been very, very warmly received. The atmosphere at the game was amazing and, obviously, one team has to lose, but you have a wonderful team here, […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    Second Jaffa Jazz Festival to Reunite International, Israeli Musicians

    For the second time, Israel will host the Jaffa Jazz Festival, according to Broadwayworld.com. The festival will unite 43 Israeli musicians and eight international artists for a three-day event. The program will include a special performance by an ensemble of top jazz students studying at Belgium’s Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, the Belgrade Music Academy in Serbia, Israel’s Rimon School of Music and the jazz program of the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. There will also be a jazz show for children led by Israeli saxophonist […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    Israel’s First NASCAR Driver Revved Up to Win

    JNS.org – As a young boy growing up in Ashdod, Israel, Alon Day got his first go-kart at age 9. By 15, he was racing them. Less than a decade later, Day has become the first Israeli professional race car driver on the NASCAR circuit. He made history by competing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on August 13. “Driving a race car is not like any other sport,” Day told JNS.org. “You are actually almost flying […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    Writer of Popular Kids Series to Premiere Autobiographical Solo Show ‘Not That Jewish’

    The writer of a popular children’s television series will premiere an off-Broadway solo show called “Not That Jewish,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Written and performed by Monica Piper — the Emmy Award-winning showrunner of Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats” — the show is described as “the autobiographical telling of a Jew…’ish’ girl’s life.” “Not That Jewish” explores Piper’s Bronx upbringing in a show-business family, her comedy-club debut and her “almost” night with former Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “Audiences can expect to leave laughed-out, a little teary-eyed and […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scottish Soccer Team Will Fly to Israel on Private Jet Used by Madonna

    Scotland’s Celtic soccer club will fly to Israel with the same private jet Madonna used while on tour, The Scotsman reported on Monday. According to the report, the team is heading for the Jewish state to compete against Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva on Tuesday night, and will be transported in the customized, luxurious Boeing 757-200 that the pop icon used in New Zealand for her six-month Rebel Heart tour, which wrapped up in March. The plane is on loan from Greece-based GainJet Aviation and can accommodate 62 passengers. The […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Revealed: Actor Jonah Hill Officiated at Wedding of Fellow Jewish Star, Singer Adam Levine

    Jewish actor Jonah Hill revealed on Wednesday morning that he had officiated the wedding of good friend and Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine. The “War Dogs” actor, 32, was a guest on Sirius XM’s The Howard Stern Show when the conversation turned to Levine’s July 2014 wedding to Victoria’s Secret model Behati Prinsloo. Hill said that after he was asked to officiate the nuptials, he started getting worried about the type of speech he was going to deliver. “I’m writing all these things, and then I […]

    Read more →