Literally, “agunot” are women whose husbands have disappeared and it is unknown if they are still alive. This leaves the women in a form of limbo, since it is unclear if they are widows. In these cases, who can determine if they are able to remarry?
In contemporary usage, the term “agunot” has also come to include women who are unable to obtain a Jewish divorce or “get.” According to Jewish law, based on the Book of Deuteronomy, a woman cannot initiate a divorce; it must be granted to her by her husband. “Agunot” are hostages, chained to deadbeat husbands who are refusing to grant them a writ of divorce.
In the modern state of Israel, matters of personal status such as marriage and divorce are controlled by the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate which deals with divorce in an archaic manner. Some claim that the rabbinate is not interested in whether or not the husband is justified in withholding his agreement, since they do not interfere or compel these men to behave honorably. As a result and not surprisingly, men within Israeli society have learned how to exploit this advantage in the rabbinic courts. Some men are manipulative and cruel and withhold the divorce in an attempt at vengeance. Others do it for financial gain. Even if the man has moved on and already lives with another woman, he might not be interested in providing his wife with the same degree of independence. In fact, some men actually require that the woman denies her right to communal property, child support and alimony payments in return for his agreement to the divorce, thus actually forcing the wife to “buy” her divorce.
Recently, a new and informative documentary has been produced on the subject, called Women Unchained by Beverly Siegel and Leta Lenik. The women in this film live in both Israel and North America and are plagued by the blackmail being legitimized by the rabbinical courts. The film talks about the toll that is being exacted – the stress, money, turmoil, and emotional pain. An in-depth look at a complex subject, the film even presents the point of view of American law – a wife-beater should be brought up on criminal charges if he demands that his wife drop charges against him in exchange for a get, or if exorbitant amounts of money are demanded in exchange for a get. These are both illegal acts and criminal proceedings should be initiated. The film also provides a creative legal solution to the problem — people are beginning to use pre-nuptial agreements to stipulate how much money the husband must pay during the period of separation until a get is given.
Ayelet Menachemi’s Get, the third story in a trilogy called Tel Aviv Stories, is a short drama about a woman willing to resort to desperate means in response to the anachronistic rabbinic laws. Tikva is a 32-year-old mother of two, a policewoman who takes her job very seriously. Working at the Shalom Tower, a skyscraper in the center of Tel Aviv, Tikva spots her husband, who has been hiding from her, refusing to grant her a divorce. Determined to obtain the divorce that had been denied her for so many years, she grabs hostages and presents demands. One of her hostages, an ultra-orthodox rabbi, arranges by mobile phone for the husband to be kidnapped by an entire rabbinic court, which will force him to grant the divorce. Tikva realizes that she does not want anything under these circumstances, neither from her ex nor from the rabbinic authorities. With this decision, she finds herself strangely liberated from the desperation and anguish that had plagued her for so long.
Tikva, however, is not a woman who lives by a strictly orthodox lifestyle. Orthodox women are much more troubled by the chains that are imposed upon them by their husbands. Anat Zuria’s Sentenced to Marriage portrays Israeli women whose husbands have refused to give them a divorce. It is heart-wrenching to hear these tragic stories. One woman is seeking a divorce since her husband is living with another woman and has fathered two children with that woman. Another husband withholds child support. But no one in the rabbinic courts is interested in compelling these husbands to grant a writ of divorce to their wives. The film follows these women, caught as hostages in this terrible legal battle, as they try to go on with their lives even though they are in limbo and forbidden contact with other men.
Perhaps Jewish halacha (law) will find a way to solve this agunah problem, especially since legal creativity has solved other issues of Jewish law. Already there are forward-thinking and compassionate rabbis in both Israel and North America who are searching for ways to handle these cases of vengeance and control. The extortion that has become too common must cease.
Women Unchained is available from the National Center for Jewish Film. Get is part of Tel Aviv Stories, a feature film, which is available from different feature film distributors on-line. Sentenced to Marriage is available from Women Make Movies.
The author blogs at www.israelfilm.blogspot.com