Finding Solutions to Free Agunot

I do not think there were any speakers – including the many rabbis on panels – who argued that there are no legitimate systemic solutions within halakha.

by Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman

The Jewish community can begin to free agunot tomorrow, said several leading Orthodox figures from Israel and North America. The rabbis, among them Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, incoming YCT head Rabbi Asher Lopatin, and Maale Gilboa Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi David Bigman, who recommended opening up a special rabbinical court for agunot, argued that the tools for resolution already exist within halakha, and these should be applied more broadly.

These sentiments and more were expressed this week at an historic Agunah Summit organized by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at NYU. There was a sense of urgency to end the problem of agunot – literally chained women, stuck in unwanted marriages to recalcitrant husbands – from their bondage, not simply to solve individual cases but to eliminate the problem once and for all. Only a systemic solution can address a systemic problem.

The Agunah Summit brought together some 200 delegates from the Jewish community. Noted speakers included Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch, Prof Alan Deshowitz, Prof Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, and a significant group of rabbis and halakhic scholars from Israel and America.

There was a general consensus among almost all the speakers that some five or six solutions are available within halakha, solutions that take away from recalcitrant husbands the exclusive exit power from marriage that they have in Jewish marriage, and place the power to dissolve marriages in the hands of rabbinical judges. Prof. Gerald Blidstein and Dr. Avishalom Weistrech delivered scholarly and detailed papers about the ways in which these practices, such as marriage “annulment”, have been used by rabbis for 2000 years. Dr. Rachel Levmore brought some real cases from modern day Israel in which forms of annulment were used – or could have been used – by rabbinical courts. These practices are an integral part of the halakhic practice, Blidstein argued, and should not be viewed as some kind of anomaly.

In fact, I do not think there were any speakers – including the many rabbis on panels – who argued that there are no legitimate systemic solutions within halakha. The objections that were voiced were primarily political and strategic. “The community is not ready,” one rabbi ironically told a crowd that represented many people who are overripe for change, a crowd that included women who have been working on finding resolutions to this problem for forty years, such as Prof Norma Baumel Joseph, Rivka Haut, Susan Aranoff, Sharon Shenhav, Esther Macner, Batya Levin, and others. The argument that the community is “not ready” clearly does not hold water, and the idea of placing blame on what one speaker called the “balabatim” smacks of short-sighted leadership.

Other rabbis argued that even if a special rabbinical court were established, the women released would not be able to remarry because the annulments would not be widely accepted. But, here, too, members of the audience disagreed. “Even if only 15% of the community accepts the annulments, that’s enough,” one person said. “And anyway, why don’t we let the women decide for themselves whether the annulment is acceptable to them,” another participant said. Lopatin suggested compiling a list of rabbis who would be willing to conduct a wedding ceremony in which the bride was a former agunah who had been released through a special court for agunot that gave her an annulment. Lopatin was cheered.

“Was this day truly historic?” Summit organizer and JOFA founder Blu Greenberg said in closing. She worked on this summit for two years, working tirelessly to build consensus that the time has come for change. If a new rabbinical court for agunot is established as a result of this, and if the community will get behind it, it will indeed have been historic.

Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is the Executive Director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and can be reached at elana.sztokman@jofa.org

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