Jews Unchained

The New York Times reported this week on an FBI sting operation which caught Rabbis kidnapping and beating recalcitrant husbands into giving their wives a divorce. Madlik readers want to know why…

The short explanation is that Jewish law gives a husband the exclusive right to give a Get; a writ of divorce.  Given this asymmetrical distribution of power, Jewish Law condones the coercion of an unwilling husband to release a wife from a marriage.. using any means necessary.  In The State of  Israel, the court will put a man in jail until he gives his wife a divorce.  Maimonides provides that the court can physically beat a husband until he agrees (as-if) to give a divorce; Mishneh Torah, Laws of Divorce 2:20.  It is clear  that the Rabbis knew that something needed fixing.  We should admit as much.  As forward-thinking as our laws were when they were made 1,000+ years ago… they are backward now.

The way it currently stands, a man can withhold a divorce until his wife pays him a ransom.. In Israel, since Jewish Law controls all marriage and divorce, the problem of a “chained Woman” agunah, is not limited to the orthodox.  Any man wishing to shakedown a wife during a bitter divorce settlement can use this lever.  In the orthodox community, both in Israel and abroad… where divorce is actually on the rise, a man can operate outside of the civil law.  Even if the civil courts sanction a divorce and favors his spouse in terms of the settlement and custody, the man can still extort her for money or better terms by withholding a Get (divorce agreement). This situation gives rise to the tough-guy rabbis caught by the FBI, whose services may be necessary but whose exorbitant fees make their motives suspect.

So far the only solutions have been of the Band-Aid variety.  One solution is a novel type of Ketubah (marriage Contract) which includes the so-called Lieberman Clause… made by Professor Saul Lieberman (who in full disclosure, performed my marriage).  As recently as July 2013, The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America issued a Resolution: Prenuptial Agreements for the Prevention of Get-Refusal.  For an organization in Israel dedicated to addressing the agunah issue visit: Mavoi Satum

The Rabbis have always considered it a great mitzvah to free an agunah, to the point that they were willing to give a deep-tissue massage to the normal rules of jurisprudence… Shockingly, they were willing to accept even a woman’s testimony when it comes to releasing an agunah. (Yeb. 88a and see my favorite Jewish Encyclopedia).

The real solution, of course, is to update the status of women in Jewish Law.  Marriage should be a transaction between equals whether it’s coed or same-sex… (The Reform movement uses a partnership agreement as a model).

Regarding a women’s status in Judaism, my litmus test has always been acceptance of a woman as a witness.  I challenge any traditional scholar or Rabbi to explain why a women is not competent to act as a witness in Jewish Law and why she is put in the same legal category as a minor or the mentally handicapped.  It’s an antediluvian bias, pure and simple.

The arguments normally raised against equal, as opposed to a separate status of women with regard to prayer and ritual (time-bound positive commandments  – The glory of a king’s daughter is inner  מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא  and כָּל-כְּבוּדָּה בַת-מֶלֶךְ פְּנִימָה) have no bearing on being a witness.  Seating and participation in Synagogue services and women’s Rabbis are important issues, but they are sideshows to the issue of status. What we need to solve the Agunah problem is to have any educated Jew; whether man or woman, say the obvious, that women are equal in front of the Torah… otherwise, we’ll all be at the mercy of thugs.

Professor Saul Lieberman reads the Ketubah at marriage of Orna and Geoffrey Stern

Professor Saul Lieberman reads the Ketubah at marriage of Orna and Geoffrey Stern


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah, women's rights

5 responses to “Jews Unchained

  1. orna

    I believe that Rabbi Rackman z”l also worked on the Agunut issue.

  2. According to the Jewish Week: Rackman encouraged couples to sign prenuptial agreements that would determine the division of assets in case of divorce, drew heavy criticism for his role in creating a bet din, or rabbinical court, that granted to women divorces that many other Orthodox rabbis did not recognize as valid.

    “He put himself out on a limb in so many ways. He got a huge amount of criticism,” [Blu] Greenberg said. “He really didn’t care what kind of opprobrium it would bring down on his head. He was driven by his great heart. His overwhelming sense of justice and compassion … directed him.”

  3. Shelly

    Always my hero. Plus I love the picture!

  4. SDK

    Hear, hear. Everyone always acts as though wearing tefillin or being called “rabbi” are the real issues. Take Jewish law out of the synagogue and apply it to everyday, modern life, as a legal code, and we have much bigger issues — as in, Saudi Arabian and Iranian style issues. Blackening out women’s faces, restricting women’s voices in public, women teaching men, women managing men, women accepting awards in front of men. Can women be lawyers in a society governed by halacha? Can they even influence the law that would bind them? Will they need to seek the permission of their husbands or fathers to leave the home? To go to school, to marry, to work? There is nothing “extreme” about Saudi law by Jewish standards — Saudi Arabia today would make perfect sense to Maimonides or any other legal theorist before the 19th century. So we have big problems. It is only because they do not live under halacha that most American Orthodox Jews can support it so wholeheartedly.

    • Thanks for making the connection to radical Islam…. We can no longer view women and gay rights within our own society without acknowledging how we rate other cultures and religions based on this litmus test. There is not a one of us whose view of Messianic Zionists or retrograde Haredim is less benign and nostalgic given commonalities with Political Islam’s desire for the return to the caliphate and anticipation of the coming of the hidden mahdi or the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire to exploit democratic institutions to recreate a closed society of an imaginary past. When the former Sephardic chief Rabbi Ovadaya Yoseph z’l denounced a moderate Orthodox rabbi running for Chief Rabbi of Israel as an “evil man” and “a danger to Judaism.” , how many of us did not think of an Ayatola or imam issuing a fatwā?

      btw… here’s an Orthodox blog’s “take” on the current agunah situation:

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