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Agunah Project

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For some ten years, Professor Bernard Jackson of Liverpool Hope and Manchester Universities has labored away, with insufficient reward or recognition, as director of the Agunah Project to document the problem and the possible solutions of Agunot. He has now retired and the project has ended, which is a shame.

A few months ago I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Jackson deliver his closing report on at the conference of the Jewish Law Association at Fordham University. You can read this report here.

The issue of the Agunah is not a simple one. In Jewish Law, divorce must be requested by the husband, written up and witnessed by a Beth Din (Jewish court), and then delivered to the wife. But what happens when a husband disappears, intentionally absconds, is buried under the World Trade Center, or goes down with the Titanic? Or worse, what happens when a pigheaded husband simply refuses, or because his wife was such a harridan, wants to avenge himself? Most common of all, he is a blackmailer and wants money? The woman is then left “tied”–she is not free to remarry under Jewish Law.

The definition of an Agunah nowadays is debatable. Originally it was simply someone whose husband had disappeared. But now it has been expanded to include those whose husbands have refused. The number of the former is probably not more than in the tens, the number of the latter may run into the thousands (it’s a hot issue in Israel, depending on whom you ask). But how long does the refusal have to go on for to make one an Agunah? Sometimes the get is delayed because of civil issues, not religious ones, which might be the fault of the woman as much as the man. In some cases it is actually the woman who is at fault.

Should the woman refuse, the rabbis often find ways of getting round the law. Should the man refuse, if he lives in Israel he may go to jail. In the Diaspora, where Jewish law is not enforceable, civil courts may intervene. But the real problem is that any coercion or pressure runs the risk of producing a Get Meuseh, a Divorce by Compulsion, which is automatically invalid. A married woman without a Get cannot remarry; if she does, her subsequent children will be “mamzerim” halachically restricted in whom they may marry.

Jewish law has been dealing with these issues creatively and innovatively for thousands of years. A rabbinical scholar suggests a solution, or a specific rabbi gives a judgment in a particular case. It is disseminated and the opinion debated within a circle of universally accepted authorities. Consensus may then emerge which will modify Jewish law. If not, individual rabbis may adjudicate according to specific circumstances and take individual responsibility for their decisions. In the past this was much more common. Nowadays pressure is easily exerted to prevent anyone being too radical, so change is far more difficult.

Times have changed and now pressure is building to treat women equally. Jewish law provides for various solutions, most controversially the annulment of the original marriage. But it is true to say that most Batei Din are loath to use such devices. Some of it is political. The more pressure Batei Din feel comes from outside their domain, the more they feel an ideological obligation not to concede to what they consider to be pressure coming from alien values.

Batei Din often speak publicly, cautiously, and conservatively for fear of being misquoted or manipulated, but privately they are often extremely cooperative and sensitive. Some Batei Din, particularly in America, use psychological and psychiatric expertise and have found effective ways of resolving issues without tinkering with the law.

One of the most popular modern ways of dealing with the issue is through a prenuptial agreement which stipulates that in case of a matrimonial breakdown both parties agree to accept the jurisdiction and decision of a Beth Din. This is much favored by Centrist Orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic and it certainly helps. So too does the increasing use of civil law to require that obstructions to remarriage be removed before a civil divorce is granted. So things are better. But still not good enough.

Sadly, women are still too often treated as second-class citizens, either intentionally or through sexist carelessness. I have always thought that if this had been a problem for men rather than women it would have been long solved. Even for those anxious to bring about change, the wheels of traditional law turn slowly and there is a legitimate fear of giving in to fashion. But too often those, like the late Emanuel Rackman, who have not waited for consensus but tried very hard to correct injustice by halachic means, have been vilified and humiliated and disregarded.

Dr. Jackson’s motives have always been of the highest and purest order and a more honest and good human being would be hard to find. What he and his team have done is document thoroughly (though not entirely exhaustively) the rabbinic literature on the subject and to place the history of creative decisions before the rabbinic and the academic world for consideration. It is a gutsy and monumental undertaking which is shutting down for lack of resources. It deserves to be kept alive, for it helps disseminate the options and thus facilitate the slow process of rethinking, even amongst those who currently reject the possibly solutions.

Pressure, political demonstrations, and publicity will not change attitudes within the closed world of Orthodox authority. But information and scholarship may. Bernard Jackson is a gem who must be treasured and the work he started must continue.

2 thoughts on “Agunah Project

  1. Thank you. Analysis is the easy part. Actually doing something is so difficult both because of politics and because it depends so much on the actual fellow sitting on a Beth Din, most of whom have little inter personal or I would even say 'ethical' training. Its so patchy. Somre parts of the jewish world are better than others. But I guess thats true of any judicial system.

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