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New Data on Agunot Challenge the Cause, But Numbers Are Beside the Point

Israel’s Rabbinic courts released data last Tuesday that contradict the claims of groups who fight for the cause of agunot [women “chained” to men who won’t grant them a Jewish divorce].
The Jerusalem Post reports that, according to the courts, “at the end of 2006 there were only 180 women in Israel who could not divorce because their husbands refused to cooperate in cutting matrimonial ties” and that only 69 of them were officially “considered agunot by the courts”:

Agunot were defined as women whose husbands stubbornly refused to cooperate even after various sanctions had been taken against them by the rabbinic courts, including suspension of drivers’ licenses, prison sentences or restraining orders. Or women whose husbands had ran away to a foreign country.

But groups fighting for the rights of agunot define the term much more broadly, including women who have obtained Jewish divorces by “forfeiting some of their basic rights, such as alimony, child support or child custody” and “women who want a divorce but who have despaired of the rabbinic courts because the judges are considered partial to the husband.” This definition, they claim, puts the number closer to as many as 100,000 agunot worldwide.

Another important, and perhaps even more surprising, part of the court’s data is that there are 190 “chained men” (versus the 180 chained women) whose wives are holding up divorce proceedings, refusing to agree to a get. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but it needs to be noted that the strength of a chained man’s bonds is less than a chained woman’s, since her chains come from the Torah and his from a rabbinic addendum to halacha. As the JPost article explains, while neither chained woman or chained man is permitted to remarry without obtaining a get, if a woman has a child through an extra-marital relationship, that child is considered a mamzer [bastard], but if a man does the same the child is not a mamzer and will enjoy the same rights and status as any fully recognized Jewish person. So the relevance of the larger number of chained men than women is questionable.

We can argue endlessly about the numbers, what they really mean and how they are collected — and note that the 100,000 is a broad estimate of agunot worldwide and 180 a narrow count of “chained women” in Israel alone — but numbers are not the issue here, people are.

In principle, do 69 agunot matter any less than 100,000 do?
Should any less be done to fight for the rights of those 69 women than is currently being done?

The rabbinic court would have us saying, yes, less should be done. Because far more significant than any numerical data is the dismissive tone in which the courts’ “administrative head,” Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, delivered the news:

“Women’s organizations who fight for agunot’s rights present baseless claims that they have no intention or desire to prove,” said Ben-Dahan. “I challenge them to bring proof that there are even a tenth of the numbers of agunot that they claim there are.”

Ben-Dahan could not have stated his purpose more clearly: this report was presented in order to stick it to feminist activists, to make them look stupid by undermining the claims on which their activism is based.

And in a sense, who can blame him? Agunah rights groups have certainly done their share of attacking the beit-din, accusing rabbinic judges of favoring men in divorce proceedings. Ben-Dahan is just trying to defend the courts against these attacks.

Yet his disdain for “women’s organizations who fight for agunot’s rights” reveals a much more problematic disdain for those very rights, and the plight, of agunot. Revealing that there are only 69 agunot does not make those 69 chained women feel any more hopeful about their situation.

Getting back to the plight of “chained men,” while the data may (may) show the rabbis to be less prejudiced in favor of husbands (without knowing the details of the cases we really can’t say), this revelation points to another problem: the courts are indeed failing to resolving divorce proceedings. Not only are 180 women stuck in frozen divorce proceedings, so are 190 men! That is not a victory to gloat over — it’s an admission of failure.

Israel’s rabbinic court would do well to introspect and try to fix its fast-tarnishing reputation by judging more compassionately and effectively, rather than going on the defensive and lashing out in the face of public criticism. The people whose lives it affects so profoundly, and whom it is supposed to treat justly, would certainly benefit.

–Rebecca Honig Friedman