Today, the Fast of Esther, is also marked by many as International Agunah Day, aimed at raising awareness of the problem of women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce (known as a get). It largely overlooks the parallel problem of men whose wives refuse to receive a Jewish divorce, however.
JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, explains why the Fast of Esther was chosen to mark the problem of agunot (chained women) and women who cannot obtain a get: “It is the only day [in the Jewish calendar] that commemorates the power of a single woman to change the course of Jewish history. Esther has become a symbol of the strength that lies within each of us to change our personal and communal circumstances. On Ta'anit Esther, we want to call attention to the plight of agunot - victims of get refusal - within the Jewish community. As Esther asked the community to fast, we ask you to make this communal day of fasting and repentance one in which you keep in mind women who cannot get a Jewish divorce. Like Esther before us, we want to let those in power know that this is an issue of community concern. We must solve this problem and help the long-suffering women in our midst.”
The setting for the problem is that under Biblical law, a man cannot be coerced to give a Jewish divorce to his wife. This places the wife of a recalcitrant husband in an untenable situation, in that she is unable to marry again, have children, or live the normative Jewish family life that she seeks. She is often forced to pay for her get, if she can and if he agrees, either monetarily or otherwise.
On the other hand, a man is proscribed by Rabbinical law from giving his wife a get if she does not agree to receive it – placing him, in the worst-case scenario, in a parallel at-her-mercy situation.
Israeli women’s groups have estimated that there are many thousands of agunot, because they include also those women whose husbands' whereabouts are known but who have not given their wives a divorce. However, Rabbinical Courts statistics from 2008 show 180 cases of female victims of get-refusal and 190 cases of men whose wives refuse to receive a get. The Rabbinical Courts often send search parties around the world to find husbands who have gone into hiding, and employ the sanctions that Israeli law allows for get-refusal. These include jail, cancellation of credit cards, and prevention from leaving the country. Women's groups complain that the sanctions should be used more often.
Rachel Levmore - rabbinical court advocate, coordinator of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and Jewish Agency’s Get-Refusal Prevention Project, and author of a Halakhic work on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal – has written that given the different definitions and different versions of the precise number of agunot, the emphasis should be placed on preventing the sad situation from occurring in the first place.
“Everyone agrees that there are victims of get-refusal,” she wrote in 2009. “Everyone has read rabbinical statements that the incidence of get-refusal has gone up in these last generations… everyone agrees that there is great potential at this point of women leaving the faith and bringing [illegitimate children] into the world unable to marry within the general Jewish community; everyone agrees that victims of get-refusal and agunot together with their families undergo great human and religious suffering… All those who relate to the aguna problem would do well to turn their focus from the question of numbers to the proposals for and implementation of solutions.”
Levmore herself, together with several rabbis, backs a pre-nuptial agreement solution stipulating heavy economic sanctions against the side that refuses to cooperate in the event that, after professional marriage counseling has not worked, a requested divorce is not finalized within a certain amount of time. Many rabbis have said that such an agreement is not enforceable in Jewish Law, rendering it misleading and therefore harmful. Levmore has responded, “If we don’t try it, we’ll never know whether or not the rabbinical courts will accept it.”
Why Only Women?
One husband whose wife is demanding a high sum of money in exchange for agreeing to accept a Jewish divorce from him – she has sued him in civil court – told Israel National News, “Why doesn’t JOFA just use the word ‘spouse’ in its campaign against get-refusal? Does JOFA not realize that the torment a woman can put her husband through is the same as what a husband can put his wife through?”
Levmore says the campaign focuses on women because their plight is more severe in that it is Biblically-mandated, while men can find solutions that are either only Rabbinically prohibited or involve the signatures of 100 rabbis. She emphasizes, however, that the prenuptial agreement she helped author is mutual and seeks to prevent get-refusal from either side.
It is generally assumed that the vast majority of divorces in Israel, between 80-85%, are initiated by women. Men’s rights advocates say this is due to several factors, among them the plethora of women’s organizations, estimated at around 800, the counseling that is freely available to women who wish to divorce, and the favorable child-custody arrangements that women receive more often than men.