Plague of the Chained Women: What You Can Do

Photograph courtesy of Josh Botwinick

Photograph courtesy of Josh Botwinick

On December 25, 2013 dozens of members of the Yeshiva University community were present in the Rubin Shul for a panel discussion on approaches to the Aguna crisis. The panel, sponsored by TEIQU, the Aguna Advocacy club, Women’s Studies Society and the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, was moderated by Rabbi Yosef Blau, Yeshiva University Mashgiach Ruchani. The panel featured Ms. Judy Heicklen, President of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and Rabbi Jeremy Stern, Director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) as the guest speakers for the evening.

The event served two major functions: educating Yeshiva University students unfamiliar with the halachic background of the Aguna crisis, and emphasizing the gravity of the Aguna crisis in our community. While the panel lacked diverse opinions, it displayed cooperation by groups which differ in their primary missions to speak up about an important issue.While ORA’s primary goal is to help agunot and tackle the Aguna crisis, JOFA joined the discussion due to their concern for women’s social and religious justice.

Rabbi Blau gave an introduction to the halachic climate of the Aguna crisis, explaining that many of the Ultra-Orthodox do not acknowledge it as a problem. Blau discussed two major groups who suffer as agunot:  non-observant Jews and victims of husbands who withhold the get from their wives. The first group is unaware of gittin and become agunot due to their lack of procedural halachic knowledge, while the second group are victims of extortion by their partners who withhold gittin for reasons of finance and child custody arrangements. Blau also claimed that the American court system is is biased towards women in terms of custody arrangements, which incites the man to use the get as his only weapon against her.

JOFA’s Heicklin began by saying, “no one should get married without a halachic prenuptial agreement”. This advice can be seen around the Yeshiva University campuses on sweatshirts by the Aguna Advocacy club which read “friends don’t let friends get married without a halachic prenup,” and on their posters advertising reasons why all Jews should sign these agreements. While these agreements are 99% effective, they can only help those who sign them. According to Heicklen, less than fifty percent of Orthodox couples sign the agreement. In Israel, however, recalcitrant husbands who withhold gittin from their wives are thrown in jail and lose their professional credentials. Heicklen argued for American rabbis to harness our secular legal system into halacha, making civil and religious divorce one process. This would result in a more streamlined process; one where get refusal would be an issue of the past. Heicklen bemoaned that we must have “extra-halachic tools” to handle this halachic issue and blames our current leadership for being afraid to use necessary alternative halachic solutions. “We stand with the couple at their wedding, but not when women become agunot,” she criticized.

Stern, a YU graduate, described how ORA was started—through the efforts of a few YU students who wanted to take action. In the few years since ORA’s founding, over 200 cases of agunot have been resolved. Stern expressed the need for a message to be disseminated: get refusal is never justified. He argued that gittin should be used independently of divorce proceedings. He emphasized that a “shift in dynamic of the Aguna crisis must occur.” Stern explained that the rhetoric of “there are two sides to every story” must be exchanged for “get refusal is domestic abuse.” Stern reiterated that finding a solution will not help unless it is adopted.  Real halachic objections are not the issue—the issue is one of stigma.

The event was a success in that it provided a cursory understanding of the importance of the halachic climate for students who may not be so familiar with the specifics of this issue. However, many of the students in attendance follow this issue already and were eager to hear leaders in the community discuss options beyond the halachic prenuptial agreement. Many students anticipated discussion of the viability of the methods of hafka’at kiddushin, kiddushin b’taut, and the new Beit Din spearheaded by Rav Simcha Krauss. However, these issues were avoided due to their seemingly controversial halachic status.

Should the conversation have continued, Heicklen and Stern’s positions might have been more differentiated in their practical solutions for remedying the crisis. However, the conversation ended before nuanced opinions could be brought out, perhaps because the sponsoring clubs’ leadership wanted to showcase ORA and JOFA’s similarities more than their differences.

Rebecca Peyser, TEIQU Co-President  and SCW ‘14, reflected on TEIQU’s goal for the event. She hoped that students would “become aware of the larger conversation within Orthodoxy about the Aguna crisis. Most people know about ORA’s mission and the halachic prenuptial agreement, but we wanted people to see it within a larger context.”

In terms of discussing the success of the event, Peyser felt that the event “could have been more successful in representing the differing opinions.” Though, she added, it was “successful in showing how respectful Heicklen and Stern were of each other. People might have come in stigmatizing JOFA because of their feminist position, so I think one of the most important aspects of the night was that the students could see the mutual respect the panelists have for each other, despite their differing ideologies, as vital players in the conversation about resolving the Aguna crisis.”

As Yeshiva University students, there are several ways we can make an impact in reducing the number of aguna cases. To prevent future cases, students should educate their friends and families and urge them to sign halachic prenuptial agreements and petition their synagogues to refuse to participate in weddings that do not use them. Students can also recommend the halachic postnuptial agreement for those already married. For existing agunot cases, students can join the Yeshiva University Aguna Advocacy club and ORA in rallies. As students of Yeshiva University, we need to take advantage of the resources and opportunities around us, and we should see it as our responsibility to educate and bring this issue to the forefront of the agendas of our communities. This event has piqued interest for more avenues to continue discussing approaches to the issue that were not addressed during the event. Despite the homogeneity of opinions in the discussion, the event has brought the promise of having such discussions in the future.