The nation’s largest Modern Orthodox rabbinical group is preparing to denounce the legal principles used by some advocates of agunot — Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse them a religious divorce. Within the next few weeks, the Jewish legal court associated with the Rabbinical Council of America, Inc. will issue a detailed response calling the halachic principles published by Agunah, Inc. “erroneous and misleading,” said Rabbi Yonah Reiss, director of the New York-based Bet Din of America.
Rabbi Reiss said the point-by-point response, currently circulating among selected Orthodox rabbis in draft form, will show that the arguments put forth by Agunah Inc. in a recent two-page ad in The Jewish Week “were faulty, the conclusions were erroneous, and the [rabbinic] sources cited were misquoted or misconstrued.”
Agunah Inc. published the principles in association with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s leading figures and the leading proponent of a creative method to free agunot — known as chained wives, whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, or get.
Failure to receive the get bars women from remarrying or having new romantic relationships under Jewish law, while the husbands can seek new companions and father children who will be considered legitimate.
To draft a critique, a select group of Orthodox rabbis, including the rabbinic board of the Bet Din of America, were consulted, Rabbi Reiss said.
Rabbi Reiss declined to share the draft, but said it will be distributed to all RCA members in the next few weeks.
The Bet Din of America hears agunot cases, but has been criticized by women advocacy groups for failing to do more to help women who have been stuck for years in “dead marriages.”
But Rabbi Reiss said the key issue is helping agunot without corrupting Jewish law. “We are of course sympathetic to agunah problems and try to resolve every one presented to us. And we do it carefully, in the framework of halacha. We examine sources carefully,” said the rabbi, adding that unfortunately, he can’t help “if arguments are faulty and conclusions are incorrect …” Rabbi Rackman argues that social circumstances have changed dramatically since the rabbis of ancient and medieval times dealt with the agunot issue, and it is incumbent on rabbis today to use any means possible to alleviate the pain and suffering of the women involved.
He advocates a method that allows dissolution of the marriage based on the emergence of negative traits that pre-existed before the marriage, such as domestic abuse or addiction. Agunah Inc. also believes that the biblical foundation for marriage — that a wife’s body is sold to her husband —no longer applies to the modern world, and a marriage can be dissolved on that basis.
“Perhaps our age is one in which sterner measures must be taken to insure deeper loyalty to the halacha,” Rabbi Rackman wrote in July. “But I am one who does not want to accomplish this result by the suffering of chained women.”
Rabbi Rackman and his partner, Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, a Queens accountant, have found themselves virtually alone in the Orthodox rabbinic world, even as they have “freed” nearly 200 women from around the world.
Many rabbinic critics refused to comment, saying a newspaper is the wrong forum to debate a complex halachic issue.
But some did.
Rabbi Elazar Teitz, a prominent Orthodox rabbi in Elizabeth, N.J., sharply criticized Agunah Inc.’s principles as “either willful misrepresentation on the part of its authors, or to abysmal ignorance of Jewish law on their part.”
David Zwiebel, co-director of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, accused Agunah, Inc. of advocating a system that could lead to wanton abolishment of Jewish marriages.
“One hardly needs halachic expertise to recognize a classic ‘baby with the bath water’ approach in Agunah Inc.’s willingness to destroy the entire institution of Jewish marriage in order to address the particular problem identified by its organizational name.”
But Agunah Inc. co-director Honey Rackman said, “We will stand by every word that we wrote. The sources are there.”