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Rabbinic Rally For Agunot and Modern-Orthodoxy

A very interesting development in the fight for agunots’ rights occurred this past Sunday. A group of Orthodox rabbis rallied, along with lay people, outside the home of another Orthodox rabbi, to protest his alleged enabling of men who refuse to grant their wives a get [religious divorce].

Such a show of support on the part of Orthodox rabbis for the cause of women’s/agunot rights, and against a fellow Orthodox rabbi, is rather unusual. The notion of rabbis rallying brings to mind causes like freeing Soviet Jewry or supporting the State of Israel, not women’s rights. Particularly regarding the cause of agunot, Orthodox rabbis, at least in Israel, have been rather hostile of late. So this could be a sign, as the Forward notes, “that the movement on behalf of agunot is gaining mainstream acceptance in the Orthodox world.” That would certainly be welcome news.

However, we should note that there’s more going on here than just the cause for agunots’ rights. This protest was also about rabbinic power.

The protesters claim that Rabbi Shlomo Blumenkrantz, the rabbi whose actions elicited the protest, has pressured “agunot to accede to their husbands’ terms, presenting decrees that allow recalcitrant husbands to remarry without granting a get,” according to the Forward. And that he’s doing so, The Jewish Press notes, “in ways that run counter to halacha.” In one particular case noted in The Jewish Press, Blumenkrantz granted a man a heter meah rabbanim [permission to marry a second wife] when that man had a seruv [document indicating he is recalcitrant and not cooperating with divorce proceedings] from the Rabbinical Court of Kollel Horabonim in Monsey, NY.

Rabbi Blumenkrantz, however, denies these charges, insisting that he’s acting in accordance with halacha and suggesting that, in fact, the rabbis accusing him are the ones handling divorces inappropriately, “because they are trying to be politically correct, and because they get pressured from feminist groups,” writes The Jewish Press. “I back what I say with documents,” he said, “these other rabbis don’t.”

So what we have here is a battle over interpretations of Jewish law and over rabbinic authority.

It is telling that Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz, a former dean at Yeshiva University, told the Forward, “I’d like to see [Blumenkrantz] stay away from the whole area in issuing halachic rulings. He should leave it to organized bodies.”

Blumenkrantz has refused to bow to the will of Orthodox rabbinic bodies — the dispute with Rabbinical Court of Kollel Horabonim in Monsey mentioned above is a case in point — and the Orthodox establishment is not having it.

But it should be noted that the rabbinic spearheaders of the rally were modern Orthodox, largely Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a rosh yeshiva at YU and “a respected Talmudic scholar known for his strict interpretation of Jewish law,” notes the Forward, “sent a letter to the members of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest union of [mostly modern-]Orthodox rabbis, and the [modern-Orthodox] National Council of Young Israel, urging the organizations to attend the rally.” These modern-Orthodox rabbis were taking a stand not just against Blumenkrantz the individual but against the right-wing, fundamentalist approach to halacha.

Because, in a sense, Blumenkrantaz is probably right: the rabbinic courts whose decrees he’s ignoring are trying to be politically correct, and are bending to the pressure of feminist groups — but that’s a good thing. They’re not just being politically correct for the sake of it; rather, they’re acknowledging that being more equitable in the way they wield halacha is right, because, as Rabbi Rabinowitz told the Forward, “Too many people have been hurt.”

–Rebecca Honig Friedman