“It has become acceptable for the get [Jewish divorce] to be used as a tool for extortion and blackmail,” said Toby Yeger, of Brooklyn, New York, speaking to an audience of about 50 women and men at a rally for agunah rights in Manhattan last March. Married to an assistant D.A. in Brooklyn, Yeger has been trying to get a divorce for the past two years.
According to Orthodox and Conservative approaches to Jewish Law, in order for a marriage to end a couple must obtain a get. Only the husband may initiate this Jewish divorce. A woman whose husband won’t give her a get is an agunah (literally, a “chained woman”) who can remain trapped in an unwanted marriage for years.
These agunot, technically married but often separated from their husbands, are unable to move forward with their lives. If a man marries again without a Jewish divorce, any children from his second marriage are unaffected by his status, yet a woman without a Jewish divorce who enters into a second marriage is considered an adulteress. Children of this union are considered mamzerim, or bastards, and cannot marry other Jews. It has become commonplace for men to use their power to withhold a get to extort money, child custody, the house, the car, or just to prevent their wives from remarrying. “The only way this is going to end is with public outcry,” Yeger told the demonstrators.
The event in New York was part of a National Day for Agunah Rights, with similar rallies taking place in several cities in the U.S. and Canada. The eleven participating organizations included Agunah Inc., Hadassah, US/Israel Women to Women, Na’amat, and the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.
According to Dr. Deborah Eiferman, Vice President of ICAR (International Coalition for Agunah Rights, which sponsored the March rally,) the goals of the event were both to raise public awareness of the problems agunot face and to mobilize Jews to pressure rabbis on the issue. Changes Dr. Eiferman said .she would like to see include synagogues pressing recalcitrant husbands to give gittin (the plural of get) and rabbis refusing to perform marriages without a prenuptial agreement providing for an automatic get if a couple has been separated for a specified period of time.
Rabbi Marc Angel of New York’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue spoke at the rally as well, commending synagogues and rabbis who have taken these actions and criticizing husbands who refuse to give gittin as “the very lowest form of Jewish life and of human life.”
One observer at the rally noted that while the speakers voiced genuine concern for women who cannot obtain divorces, none addressed the underlying issue of women’s lack of autonomy under Jewish law. “Pressuring husbands to give gittin reinforces men’s unique right to initiate a divorce,” she said. “In the long term, women have to have the right to initiate Jewish divorce proceedings.”
Susan Aranoff, Director of Agunah, Inc., and Fredda Richman of Women to Women, who attended the rally, questioned the existing structure of Jewish divorce laws and the fact that women do not have control over their own bodies and lives. “The structure of the Jewish marriage is an acquisition, the dissolution of that is for him to release her. Why should a man have that right?”