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Agunah (Hebrew: עגונה‎, plural: agunot (עגונות); literally 'anchored or chained') is a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is "chained" to her marriage. It is also often used nowadays for a woman whose husband refuses or is unable to grant her an official bill of divorce, known as a get.

For a divorce to be effective, Jewish law requires that a man grant his wife a get of his own free will. Without a get or a heter aguna (permission by a halachic authority based on a decision that her husband is presumed dead) no new marriage will be recognized, and any children she might have with another man would be considered illegitimate.

Because of the difficulty of the situation for women in such situations, it has been a task for every generation of halachic authorities to try to find halachically acceptable means to permit such women to remarry. In the past it was somewhat commonplace, due to the danger of travel, for people leaving home never to be heard of again; as such, rabbis have had to deal with this issue on a constant basis. Over the past few centuries, thousands of responsa have been written to deal with cases of agunot.

In the past, most aguna cases were due to a husband dying without leaving clear evidence of his demise, or becoming mentally ill (insane). Nowadays many aguna cases arise as a result of a husband withholding a get in order to extort money or extract a more favorable divorce settlement or to get even with his wife. In response, aguna groups have organized to support these women and try to find a solution to this problem. Various remedies have been proposed, but as yet, no one solution has common acceptance. Nevertheless, the Prenuptial Agreement for the Prevention of Get-Refusal is one remedy which is in use in Jewish communities worldwide and is accepted by halachic authorities.

While it is widely assumed that the problem lies primarily in men refusing to grant their wives a get, and that it is a widespread issue; in Israel, figures released from the chief rabbinate suggest that men are refused divorce in equal numbers, and that the numbers are actually a couple of hundred on each side.[1] Nevertheless,

"A woman suffers more in this situation, as she is Biblically forbidden to marry again, and children she might bear to another man would be considered bastards according to Halakhah [Jewish Law]. A man is similarly not permitted to marry before being divorced, but the ban is much less severe, and in any event his future children will not be considered illegitimate."[2]

Causes

Circumstances leading to a woman being declared an aguna are:

  • The disappearance of the husband without any witnesses declaring that he is dead;
  • The husband succumbing to a physical or mental disease that leaves him in a coma or insane and unable to actively grant a divorce;
  • The husband refusing to grant his wife a get. A woman denied a get by her husband is technically called a mesorevet get, although the term aguna is more commonly used.

A woman who is denied a divorce from her husband is not considered an aguna until her husband refuses an order by a rabbinic court to give her a get.

What constitutes a legitimate request for a divorce is based on halachic considerations and the particular case of the couple. See Mesorevet get below.

Background

Because of the serious nature of adultery in Jewish law, an aguna is forbidden to marry another man, regardless of the circumstances, whether accidental or malicious, that left her an aguna in the first place, or the amount of time that has passed since she first became an aguna. A child born from another man to an aguna is considered a mamzer (halachically illegitimate), and may only marry another mamzer or a convert.

Because of the dire situation of the agunah, every effort is made to release her from her marriage. This can be done in three ways:

  • Locating the husband and convincing him to give his wife a get;
  • Providing evidence that the husband is dead;
  • Finding a flaw in the original marriage ceremony, thereby retroactively annulling the marriage.

According to most rabbis, reasonable circumstantial evidence is sufficient to prove the death of the husband, and no direct testimony is required. This is based, among other things, on the talmudic assertion: "The Rabbis taught: 'If he fell into a lion's den, [bring witnesses to] testify [that he is dead], if he fell into a ditch of snakes and scorpions - [there is] no [need] to testify [that he is dead]'" (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 121a). In other words, if it is known that the man fell into a ditch of snakes and scorpions and did not come out, it can be assumed that he is dead, and there is no need for further evidence (unlike falling into a lion's den where there is still a slight chance of survival). If, however, it is later discovered that the husband is not dead, the woman will find herself in particularly bad circumstances: her children from her second marriage will be considered mamzerim (bastards), and she will be forced to divorce both her first and second husbands, subject to the halachic ruling that an adulterous woman "is forbidden to her husband and the man with whom she fornicated". While such situations are extremely rare under normal circumstances, they did occur in the aftermath of the Holocaust and also occurred frequently in the wake of pogroms and other forms of persecution.

Finding a flaw in the marriage ceremony is considered to be a last resort in releasing an agunah. It is rarely used as it is typically difficult in finding actual cause in most marriages to retroactively invalidate it. In Jewish law, a marriage must be performed in front of two witnesses. In order to release the agunah, efforts are made to identify reasons why one of the witnesses was ineligible. This is typically unachievable as strong efforts are made at the time of marriage to ensure the validity of the witnesses and the marriage ceremony. Another possibility is to prove that the woman did not consent to the marriage clearly and of her own free will, so that the marriage ceremony is declared invalid. This too is not generally accepted amongst the Halakhic authorities as there is generally no method to disprove intent. It is felt that the purpose of this endeavor is solely or primarily to retroactively delegitimize a marriage that was performed and accepted often many years previously. Annulling the marriage has no impact on the status of the woman's children. However, since it is not a generally accepted mechanism, it may leave the wife susceptible to a halakhic ruling that she was still married, and any subsequent relations with another man to be adultery. And it may lead to other halachic problems, so it is only used as a last resort by the authorities that do accept its use.

Only a woman can be declared an agunah. None of the prohibitions listed above goes into effect for a man whose wife has disappeared. This is because there is no prohibition in the Torah for a man to have two wives, and a child born to a married man with a single woman is not considered to be a mamzer. In the beginning of the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom issued a decree prohibiting Jewish men from practising bigamy (though this was not accepted by certain remote Jewish communities such as the Yemenite Jews). To prevent this decree from causing flippant divorces previously unnecessary, Rabbenu Gershom also decreed that "a woman may not be divorced against her will." In certain extreme circumstances, however, such as the case of a man whose wife is missing, or who refused to accept a get for an extended period, a heter meah rabbanim (exemption by one hundred rabbis) may permit him to take a second wife (in the latter case, after depositing a get with them). This exemption is applied nowadays, only in extremely rare circumstances. Thus, it is not uncommon for a woman to maliciously refuse acceptance of a get, in effect "chaining" her husband.

In modern and ancient times, warfare has been a major cause of women being declared agunot (plural of agunah), as (especially in ancient times) soldiers are often killed with no one knowing. Many efforts have been made to resolve this problem in accordance with halachic principles. During World War II, some American Jewish and other chaplains provided combat soldiers with a "provisional get", which only goes into effect if the husband is missing in action, leaving his wife an agunah. This is based on a talmudic explanation of the incident of King David and Bathsheba (see II Samuel 11). According to one interpretation, David did not sin by lying with a married woman, since all of his soldiers gave a "provisional get" to their wives before leaving for battle. "Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: 'Everyone who went to war on behalf of David, left a provisional get for his wife'" (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat 56a). In the modern state of Israel, the Chief Rabbinate has rejected this proposal, not in the least because of the impact it would have on the morale of the troops.

Mesorevet get / Get refusal

Mesorevet get is a term for a Jewish woman who is chained to her marriage because of her husband's refusal to give her a get. A mesorevet get is a "victim of get refusal," otherwise known as a "modern-day aguna."

According to halakha, a get is valid when it is given by a husband to his wife out of his own free will (Yebamot, 14:1). However, under certain circumstances pressure may be applied on a husband to force him to grant a divorce to his wife. Where a woman has proven one or more of a list of particular grounds for divorce, the rabbinical court (beth din) may apply pressure on the husband in those situations (Ketubot, 7:10; Gittin, 9:8). There are some halakhic decisors who would act accordingly in the cases of abuse or neglect (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer, 154:3). Nevertheless, not under all circumstances is a wife entitled to demand a divorce according to halakha. If a wife who is not halakhically entitled to a divorce does demand one, she may not be considered as a mesorevet get by a Rabbinical Court. However, not any woman who wants to leave an unwanted marriage but is refused by her husband, is considered to be a victim of get refusal. There are opinions that deem a woman's repugnance for her husband as acceptable halakhic grounds for coercion (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Ishut, 14:8). "It is said: In cases of granting a get to a woman, the man is forced until he says, 'I wish to do so'" (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 21a; Rambam, Mishna Torah, Hilchot Gerushin, 2:2). Nevertheless, in almost all cases, it is required to leave the man some say in the matter, lest the get be considered a "coerced divorce", which is halachically invalid. As ruled by Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer HaYashar, Response 24; Rema, Even HaEzer 154:21), pressures that can be exerted against the man include shunning, denying him communal benefits and honors, and in extreme cases even imprisonment. Legend has it that as a last resort where all else has failed, a tactic has been sparingly used in the past, to let him spend a night near a nameless grave, or to frighten him in some other way. In Israel, rabbinical courts are allowed by law to implement various measures to persuade a man to grant his wife a get (Rabbinical Courts Law [Enforcement of Divorce Rulings] 5755-1995)[3]. These sanctions are a modern day version of the aforementioned, Harchakot D'Rabeinu Tam, which include: revoking of a driver's license, closing of bank accounts, revoking professional licenses such as medical and legal, cancellation of a passport, and incarceration. Practically, one of the most effective of these has turned out to be revoking a recalcitrant husband's driver's license. Even so, neither the laws nor the Israeli Rabbinical Courts' enforcement, or lack thereof, have succeeded in erasing the blight of get refusal within Israeli society. In the Diaspora, the Rabbinical Courts have no such powers. Any practical power that they may wield would be the product of a binding arbitration agreement (Prenuptial Agreement for the Prevention of Get-Refusal), if signed previously by the combating couple. Within the past decade, both Orthodox rabbinical groups[4] and women's organizations[5] have decried the increasing number of cases of get refusal, as well as establishing task forces to deal with the issue and to help individual victims of get refusal[6].

Activism

  Part of a series of articles on
Jewish feminism

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Advocates
List of Jewish feminists
Groups
JOFA · National Council of Jewish Women · Shira Hadasha
Issues
Agunah · Feminism · Widowhood · Jewish marriage · Minyan · Mitzvah · Partnership minyan · Women in Judaism

Many women's groups feel that rabbinical courts fail to use all the measures at their disposal to force men to grant their wives a get, thereby allowing a vengeful husband to blackmail his wife for years. Public criticism of the courts, as well as demonstrations, have been attempted to influence particularly notorious cases.

Several solutions have been proposed to help women who are denied a get:

  • Increasing the means available to the rabbinic courts to force husbands to grant their wives a get. In Israel, rabbinic courts can even imprison a husband until he acquiesces and grants a get to his wife. This is not, however, an option for rabbinic courts elsewhere, since they do not have the support of the state.
  • Having couples sign a Prenuptial Agreement for the Prevention of Get-Refusal, which requires the husband to pay high spousal support to his wife if he denies her a get, so as to provide incentive to the couple not to delay the divorce. Halakhic authorities in the United States have validated particular prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.[1][7]
  • Having couples prepare a "provisional get," which will only go into effect under certain predefined circumstances.
  • Having couples agree to a "conditional marriage," which includes a stipulation in the marriage ceremony citing that under certain conditions (such as living apart for an extended period of time), the marriage itself would be nulified with no need for a get.

In 2004, Justice Menachem HaCohen of the Jerusalem Family Court offered new hope to agunot when he ruled that a man refusing his wife a get must pay her NIS 425,000 in punitive damages, because "[R]efusal to grant a get constitutes a severe infringement on her ability to lead a reasonable, normal life, and can be considered emotional abuse lasting several years." He noted that "[T]his is not another sanction against someone refusing to give a get, intended to speed up the process of granting a get, and this court is not involving itself in any future arrangements for the granting of a get, but rather, it is a direct response to the consequences that stem from not granting a get, and the right of the woman to receive punitive damages."

In 2007, an Israeli survey revealed that there only 180 cases of refusing-get husbands including 69 documented agunah cases. In contrast, there are 190 cases in which the wife refuses to give the husband a divorce.[8]

Outside Israel, an agunah could obtain a civil marriage, as legal systems generally do not recognise the agunah status. Nevertheless, as she would be in violation of halakha by doing so, religiously committed women are reluctant to take this step. Moreover, her children from the second would be considered mamzerim.

Conservative Judaism and the agunah

Conservative Judaism has sought to remedy such cases by attaching a clause to the ketuba, known as the Lieberman clause, in which the parties agree that if there are civil divorce proceedings, then both must appear before a beit din of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Rabbi Saul Lieberman, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, proposed that the clause be added to ketubas to create a legal remedy through civil courts in case one party fails to cooperate in Jewish divorce proceedings.

Orthodox Judaism has rejected the Lieberman clause as a violation of Jewish law. The Orthodox rabbinate argued that an agreement to pay a non-specified amount of money is an asmachta, and not halakhically valid.

In practice, women who have been unable to obtain a get have not always been successful in enforcing the Lieberman clause in U.S. state courts, which have jurisdiction in divorce cases. Several state courts have refused to accept cases based on the Lieberman clause because, according to them, it violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

Zika le-Yibbum

A related case is that of a woman whose husband has died childless: in such a situation, the husband's brother is required by Jewish law to enter into a levirate marriage with the widow so as to have children with her in the name of the deceased. The brother can refuse to do yibbum and instead perform a ceremony known as chalitza to release her from her bond to him (in modern times chalitza is nearly always performed instead of yibbum). If the brother is missing, or if he is still a child, the woman is required to wait until he is located or has reached adolescence so that he can perform the chalitza ceremony. There have been recorded cases of the husband's brother trying to blackmail the widow by delaying the chalitza ceremony, effectively leaving her as an agunah.

References

  1. "Rabbinate Stats: 180 Women, 185 Men 'Chained' by Spouses". Israelnationalnews. 2007-08-23. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/123472. Retrieved 2007-08-26. 
  2. "ibid.". http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/123472. 
  3. Chok Batei Din Rabbaniim 1995
  4. Orthodox Rabbinical Groups Orthodox Caucus
  5. Women's Organizations Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance
  6. Help Individual Victims Council of Young Israel Rabbis
  7. "The OC Web :: Pre-Nuptial". New York, NY: The Orthodox Caucus. Archived from the original on 2007-09-27. http://web.archive.org/web/20070927062707/www.ocweb.org/index.php/pre_nuptial. Retrieved 2009-05-21.  The sample prenuptial agreement PDF itself not (yet) found in the archive.
  8. Arutz Sheva article 28 June 2007. Related news item.

External links

yi:עגונה


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