Daily Israel Report

Agunah Conference Abruptly Canceled

Rabbis invited to take part in a suddenly-canceled conference on Agunot still hope to convene a gathering of sorts. The objective: to find Jewish-legal solutions to the problem of "chained women."
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 11/7/2006, 12:17 PM / Last Update: 11/6/2006, 3:47 PM

Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Rishon LeTzion, abruptly canceled last week a conference he planned on women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce. These women are known as agunot, chained women.

The conference had been set for Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, with the blessing of leading hareidi-religious sage Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. However, many elements in the hareidi camp exerted pressure against the conference, Rabbi Elyashiv withdrew his support - and Rabbi Amar was forced to call it off.

The International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW), which initiated the conference, reports that it spent two years planning it. ICJW, which represents 52 women's organizations in 47 countries, is not defined as a religious organization, but seeks a Halakhic solution to the problem of agunot.

Some 50 leading rabbis and rabbinical court heads from all over the world had been invited to the conference, and some of them received word of the cancellation only after they had arrived in Israel. Among the invitees were the Chief Rabbis of Argentina, France, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, and others.

One of those who traveled to Israel especially for the conference and learned of its cancellation only afterwards is Yeshiva University's Rabbi Yosef Blau from New York. He told Arutz-7 that he was not expecting any breakthrough Halakhic solutions at the conference. "Its goals were rather to show concern about the problem and to try to get rabbis to work together on solving it," he said.

Rabbi Blau expressed consternation that the conference was canceled because of some groups' fears of discussion:
"Are people afraid of rabbis talking together? I can understand the emotions involved, but I find it hard to understand the objections to having discussions. This was to be an opportunity for Orthodox rabbis from different countries and with different perspectives to get together and to begin a discussion. The way to deal with this is by discussion, not by pressure from various groups."

Reminded that some hareidi elements felt that the women's groups that pushed for the conference were themselves exerting pressure, Rabbi Blau said, "I resent the notion that rabbis can't stand up to women's groups' pressures. Any solution that would be considered would only be a Halakhic one. It's very sad that people are afraid of discussion."

As of Monday afternoon, it was still not known whether some of the organizers would try to hold an impromptu conference on a smaller scale.

MK Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) also expressed his disappointment at the news. "My party attributes great importance to a gathering of rabbis from Israel and abroad to find Halakhic solutions to the difficult situation in which thousands of women find themselves," Orlev said. He called upon Rabbi Amar to reconsider his decision, noting that "rabbis have always worked very hard to try to solve difficult humane problems."

Liora Minke, who chairs the religious Emunah women's organization, issued this response:
"The conference was never intended to break the principles and framework of Halakhah, but rather to restore the honor of the Jewish family, of the world of Halakhah, and of Judaism... The hareidi outlook that has... easily arm-twisted the good intentions to help the agunot is one of the 'seven wonders of the world.' ... We fully believed that this conference might give a ray of truth that would free thousands of women from their shame and suffering..."

Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, director of Israel's rabbinical courts who worked closely with Rabbi Amar to coordinate the conference preparations, said, "It was a welcome initiative. It's sad that months of efforts will be lost."

Two weeks ago, the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women established an advisory committee to deal with the problem of agunot. The committee will be manned by MKs Benny Elon, Moshe Gafni, Gideon Saar, Ronit Tirosh and Zahava Gal'on, as well as Rabbi Ben-Dahan, Rabbinical Courts Legal Counsel Shimon Yaakobi, Rabbinical Court Justice Rabbi Binyamin Be'eri, Atty. Batya Cohen-Dror of the 'Dead End' Organization, and Atty. Bat-Sheva Sherman of ICAR (International Coalition for Agunah Rights)..