Advocates of a creative method to dissolve religious marriages on behalf of Orthodox Jewish women have for the first time publicly issued a detailed explanation of their process. In a two-page advertisement on pages 26 and 27 in this week’s Jewish Week, the group, Agunah Inc., in cooperation with Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, one of Modern Orthodoxy’s leading figures, published the “Halachic Principles and Procedures For Freeing Agunot.” Agunot, Hebrew for chained wives, refers to Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, or get.
Failure to receive the get bars women from remarrying under Orthodox Jewish law, while their husbands can seek new companions and father children who will be considered legitimate. Rabbi Rackman established a rabbinical court, or bet din, with Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern 18 months ago that began granting annulments to wives who had nowhere else to turn. Since then, the court has been denounced by a spectrum of Orthodox organizations and rabbis who have charged that the new procedure, however well-intentioned, exceeds the boundaries of Jewish law, or halacha. They have demanded that Rabbi Rackman provide his rabbinic sources and evidence in writing. The 2,000-word ad is “a response to criticism by various segments of the Orthodox rabbinate who have questioned the halachic legitimacy of the new court,” said Susan Aranoff, director of Agunah Inc. She said it is also an effort to inform the broader Jewish community of the halachic foundations of the new court. Aranoff said the document explains that undisclosed defects in a groom which later manifest themselves in such behavior as wife-beating or child molestation provide halachic grounds for freeing a woman from an intolerable marriage. The document also asserts that the lack of informed consent by the bride to a marriage in which she can be imprisoned at her husband’s will is also grounds for declaring that the marriage was never created according to halacha.
Advocates cite the work of the great 20th-century scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the document as an “inspiration” for their procedures.
To date, more than 190 women have received an annulment or divorce from the court after having been stonewalled by mainstream Orthodox courts. Rabbi Rackman has said the agunot problem, affecting hundreds of women, is extreme, and calls for a creative and extreme solution. For more than a decade, Agunah Inc. has denounced Orthodox rabbinic courts for their failure to use existing halachic premises and precedents to free agunot. “With an estimated one in five Jewish marriages ending in divorce and the accompanying escalation in get extortion and cruelty, the increased number of agunot has reached crisis proportions,” said co-director Honey Rackman. “It is our hope,” said Henni Goldstein, another group official, “that this document, having demonstrated the halachic sources available to free agunot, will spur rabbinic courts to realize their expressed desire to liberate thousands of innocent suffering women.”