Women’s Right to Divorce

It’s odd to have a coffee-table book about agunot, women who can’t get Jewish divorces, but The Tears of the Oppressed: An Examination of the Agunah Problem: Background and Halakhic Sources by Aviad Hacohen and Blu Greenberg (Ktav, $39.50) is exactly that. With its large, glossy cover and elegant text, I am assuming the publishers wanted to distinguish this book from the myriad of others on the same topic while highlighting that the aguna issue is central to the struggle for women’s rights in Judaism.

Menachem Elon, eminent Israeli judge and legal theorist, gives an excellent summary of the topic in his foreword to the book: Both Jewish marriage and divorce are matters of private contract between the husband and wife, and must be transacted at the free will of both parties. Therefore, if a husband refuses, or is unable to give his wife a get—a Jewish divorce—she remains chained to him until he frees her. If she has relations with another man without having received her divorce, she is considered an adulteress, and any children from that second man are mamzerim, marked for life as unable to marry within the mainstream Jewish community.

One unique contribution of this book is the reproduction of several responsa (Jewish legal opinions) relating to the aguna issue. Many of these responsa are here translated into English for the first time. However, the reproductions are of such poor quality that some are almost illegible, a real shame.

Another interesting contribution is the explanation by Aviad Hacohen of how rabbis in the past dealt with the “chained wife,” a situation usually caused by the man’s disappearance. He also proposes a legal solution to the problem today, namely, that any transaction, including a marriage transaction, is invalid from its inception if based on a mistake. Hacohen wants to use the Talmud and other sources dealing with the “mistaken transaction” to allow Jewish courts to annul marriages when the woman wants to be freed of the bonds of marriage but the husband will not do it of his own free will.

This is not a new idea, nor is it likely to receive widespread acceptance. However, if we are to find solutions to the aguna problem, they will have to be community-wide, because as soon as someone casts aspersions on a woman’s marriage status, the pall of the mamzer hangs over her children.

C. Devora Hammer has written for The Washingtonian, The Forward, Los Angeies Jewish Journal and, of course, LILITH.