Confessions of an Aguna Activist

Under Jewish law, an aguna is, literally, an "anchored woman," one whose husband refuses to grant her a divorce. 

I. There was already a knot of people huddled at the demonstration in Borough Park, Brooklyn by the time we arrived, on that sunny Sunday morning. It was 20 degrees below zero.

A woman out front took the megaphone and began her admonishment, “Avraham Zvi Silver stein* is in contempt of Jewish court. He refuses to give his wife a get (write of divorce). He is an abomination amongst the People of Israel. The bais din [Jewish court] has asked us to do everything we can to help this woman. He is a shame to the whole community!” The demonstrators trudged around the courtyard under this man’s apartment, chanting “Avraham Zvi Silverstein, give your wife a get!” “Free Esther Silver stein!” “We demand a get for Esther and all the Agunot like her! Even in the freedom of America, we have women chained to their husbands—set them free!”

Then the aguna, Esther, took the megaphone. She was a young woman with a beret over her wig, large glasses, very plain. “I just want to ask Avraham Zvi to let me go, I want to lead a normal life….” She started to cry.

A black-garbed man walking down the street paused, listened, and started yelling, “She’s just a feminist,that lady with the megaphone, she doesn’t care about Jewish law, just likes to make trouble! Why does Borough Park need a demonstration?”

But other, similarly black-garbed men shouted him down, “What’s this got to do with feminism? Who said she was a feminist? Esther Silverstein’s husband won’t give her a get and the bais din told her friends to help her out, that’s all it is!”

One woman asked me “And how long has Esther been waiting for her get?” When I told her it was five years, she snorted, “That’s nothing, I’ve been chained to my ex for 15 years!”

Our final destination was the shul where Mr. Silverstein usually came for afternoon prayers. We had a petition with hundreds of signatures on it. Esther was the last to sign. A rotund, long-coated Hasid hovered around her as the demonstration broke up. “Why don’t you call me anymore?” he asked her in a sing-song voice. “You know,” she answered, “the telephone rings at both ends.”

How long will she wait? I wondered, as I took the subway home.

II. The Jewish law of divorce has its source in Deuteronomy (24:1).

“A man takes a wife and possesses her. She fails to please him because he finds ervat davar (hard to translate) in her, and he writes a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.”

From this passage, early Jewish decisors learned a number of things: a divorce can only take place through a personal action of the husband, “with his full consent.” A Jewish court does not have the power to issue a decree of divorce on its own.(In contrast, in America, divorce is affected through a decree of the courts.) The Rabbis also interpreted “ervat davar” to mean that the man could divorce his wife if he sees anything in her which does not find favor in his eyes.

Nothing in the passage from Deuteronomy indicates that a woman can initiate a divorce. However, the Talmud did provide that a wife was permitted to petition a Jewish court, under certain circumstances, to compel her husband today voice her. The circumstances where compulsion is permissible include where the husband has physical defects that are deemed unendurable; where the husband fails to perform his marital duties; and, according to some, where the wife says “he is [sexually] repulsive to me,” or where the husband beats her.

Why is it so important to obtain a Jewish divorce? A married woman who lives with another man is considered an adulteress; any child born of the adulterous union is a mamzer. A mamzer may not marry anyone except another mamzer or a convert. The status of mamzer lasts for ten generations—some say forever. So even a woman who does not consider herself religious needs a get: who wants to cast the pall of mamzer on children of a future relationship?

In contrast, if a man fails to give a get to his former wife, and then has a second relationship, he has violated no biblical prohibition. He violates the rule of the Ashkenazi (European) rabbis, which prohibits polygyny, but children of the second relationship will in no way be tainted. They are free to marry whomever they wish.

III. About 15 years after I stood outside Avraham Zvi Silverstein’s apartment demonstrating for his wife’s freedom, I was invited to dinner with some new neighbors. Our host was a rough kind of man, shoving his wife around, issuing orders. Esther, our hostess, explained that the children at the table were not hers; she had a daughter who was with her father that Shabbos. Somewhere in the middle of the soup course it became clear that this very Esther was the aguna for whom we had demonstrated one freezing Sunday in Borough Park. We had helped free her, and she had chosen this life, with this man.

And I wondered then, and do now, what is it that we are freeing agunot for?

We aguna activists were and are single-mindedly focused on unchaining agunot, but not on preparing them for life after wards.

The Children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years after the Exodus, before they entered the Promised Land. Women who have been “chained” for significant periods to bad husbands have much to learn before they can enjoy their freedom. Many do not know how to handle life alone, and marry badly the second time, too.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the urgent and important work of getting an aguna a get. But what about the non-urgent but just as important work of helping her build a life after wards? I believe that as freedom fighters for agunot, our duty is not just to break the chains that bind these women to their particular men, but to help them keep their freedom even after the get has been given. This means encouraging them to become economically and emotionally independent, and helping them steer away from future unhealthy relationships.

How can we do this? Here are some ideas:

Support group. These should include women who are currently “chained,” as well as those who have received the get. This gives women a sense of the continuum of experience from separation through divorce and life after wards, preparing them for the high of freedom and the low of the sometimes lonely life beyond.

Ongoing counseling, and more. An aguna shouldn’t fall off our “must call” lists as soon as she receives her get. She should have available, both before and after her divorce, the services of trained counselors. In addition, we must keep up with these women, not wait for them to call us in a crisis. Just like some schools regularly visit nursing homes as part of a hesed project, so we could each take on a list of women who might like an encouraging word once a week, and make it our business to call them. Through these long-term relationships, we can create an atmosphere of trust, and help them through their often-difficult daily lives alone or as single mothers.

“Marriage Protection” Agreements. If a former aguna decides she’s ready to remarry, we should encourage her and future husband to sign a special kind of Jewish pre-nuptial agreement that could help prevent her from being an aguna again. Here is testimony of one woman in a letter to the Beth Din of America: “As a young woman, I realized that my fairy tale marriage was just that…a fairy tale. My ex-husband had denied me a civil divorce as well as a Jewish divorce…The Jewish pre-nuptial agreement afforded me a vital tool to have this marriage dissolved. If not for this life-saving document, I would not have been able to continue forward with my Jewish life…a life which has since blossomed.”

Changing societal attitudes to marriage.

Before an aguna has in her hands the paper attesting to her freedom, well-meaning friends are already waiting to set her up with the next man—sometimes someone who has made another woman an aguna! The Jewish world communicates the message that marriage is the best state to be in, no matter who you are. Marriage is a difficult institution, and it is not for everyone. Single hood is sometimes better than a bad relationship. So let’s think about that blind date idea again: is it the right one, or just any one? Let’s create an environment where it’s less uncomfortable to be single—the ex-agunot won’t be the only ones who are grateful.  

C. Devora Hammer writes the Washington column for the Australian Jewish News. Her last pieces for LILITH were “Blood Rhythms: Sex in an Orthodox Marriage” and “The Stay-at-Work Mom.”