New Court Set To Free Agunot
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New Court Set To Free Agunot

Despite failure of past efforts on behalf of ‘chained’ wives, ambitious beit din now in session; will its rulings be accepted?

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers trends among youth and millennials, progress and pushback in the Orthodox world, women's issues, the Jewish LGBTQ community and Reform and Conservative Jewish life. She also heads the Investigative Journalism Fund, a special project of the Jewish Week to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting, and 36 Under 36, an annual special issue profiling 36 exceptional young leaders. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

In a bid to free women trapped for years in broken marriages, a new international religious court — spearheaded by Orthodox rabbis here, with the backing of several haredi colleagues in Israel — has begun officiating cases, The Jewish Week has learned.

The court, called the International Beit Din, was formed in June and is headed by Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a highly respected former pulpit rabbi in Queens and Religious Zionist of America leader who made aliyah in 2005. It is interpreting Jewish law in new ways — still consistent with tradition, its leaders say — to procure a get, or religious divorce, for agunot, women stuck in marriages with recalcitrant husbands.

“These women have been in pain for too long,” said Rabbi Krauss, who moved from Jerusalem to Riverdale in order to direct the court. “In many of these cases, their husbands have already moved on with their lives and gotten remarried, while they are still trapped.”

According to Jewish law a woman is unable to remarry without a get while there are methods in place for a husband to do so.

The court, Rabbi Krauss told The Jewish Week in an interview, has “jumped right in” and has already seen 10 cases over the past few weeks, including several “high-profile” ones.

Currently, the court is in the process of writing up Jewish legal documentation (psakei din) to free these women from their former marriages.

In addition to introducing certain methodological innovations, the court has appointed Dr. Giti Bendheim, a psychologist here, to head a special committee to help women feel more secure during the judicial process. According to Rabbi Krauss, Bendheim, who is active with American Friends of Nishmat, a Jerusalem-based center for advanced Torah study for women, is the first person to serve in a role of this specific nature.

“We want to make certain that there is always a woman in the room,” said Rabbi Krauss, reflecting a concern that has become increasingly relevant in light of the recent mikvah scandal in Washington, D.C. “Some of the agunot are very young, and they would benefit from having a strong female presence available,” he said.

While the number of agunot is not known, the problem has gone largely unsolved, pitting traditional Jewish law against those who feel deep empathy for women stuck in loveless marriages. At the root of the issue is the husband’s absolute right when it comes to issuing a get, or Jewish divorce. And while rabbinic authorities offer sympathy for these women, they maintain they are constrained from action in many cases by the boundaries of halacha. The result, at times, has the husband using extortion before granting a divorce, insisting on large sums of money and/or refusing joint custody of children. According to Jewish law, if the agunah marries and has a child, the child is considered a mamzer, illegitimate, and cannot marry a Jew. (This is not true in the husband’s case.)

Concerns about the moral injustice of the “absolute right” principle have led to a myriad of efforts to resolve the agunah problem, or “crisis,” in recent years. In the 1990s, the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a major figure in Modern Orthodoxy and president of Bar-Ilan University, convened a beit din that issued divorces on the basis of kiddushei ta’ot, a Talmudic concept for annulment. The principle reasons that the woman never would have married her husband if she had known he would act in an abusive fashion during the marriage.

While deeply respected on a personal level by his peers, Rabbi Rackman, who died in 2008,was unsuccessful in persuading them to accept his approach, which was considered too lenient. The practical result was that many rabbis refused to officiate at the subsequent weddings of women who had been freed by the rabbi’s bet din.

“We’ve dealt with cases of women who got a heter [permission] to remarry from Rabbi Rackman, but when they approached their local Orthodox rabbi, he said the heter was no good,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA). ORA, founded in 2002, has assisted in the resolution of 225 agunah cases, often by holding public protests to embarrass and pressure the husband to release his wife from the marriage.

“These women were given a solution that wasn’t a solution,” said Rabbi Stern. “Communal and rabbinic consensus when it comes to agunah cases is critical.”

Rabbi Krauss is introducing the legal concept of get zikui, annulling a marriage based on what is best for both parties. The principle operates on the premise that the divorce will ultimately benefit the husband as well as the wife.

“There is no more relationship — they have gone their separate ways,” explained Rabbi Krauss in an email. “The husband doesn’t want to give the get unless he gets money. It’s not true that he doesn’t want to give a divorce, but he wants money. Deep down, he wants to be free and pursue his life.”

The International Beit Din will not use get zikui to the exclusion of other methods, explained Rabbi Yosef Blau, another of the three judges on the panel and the spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University.

“A number of tools can be used,” he said. “Each case will be evaluated on its own merit. The goal is to free women in a way that the decision will be accepted in the broader community.”

Procuring rabbinic consensus is the most important — and difficult — part of the process, said Rabbi Blau. “A piece of paper is just a piece of paper,” he said. “Acceptance is what sets an agunah free.”

Already, Rabbi Krauss has gained the support of two leading Israeli rabbis associated with the charedi community. Most significant is Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, a rosh yeshiva, posek (someone who rules on issues of Jewish law), and chief justice of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Jerusalem.

The other is She’ar Yashuv Cohen, former chief rabbi of Haifa and president of its rabbinic courts. A third prominent Israeli rosh yeshiva has also signaled his support for Rabbi Krauss but prefers to remain anonymous.

“Our support stands firm,” said Rabbi Krauss, who first told The Jewish Week about the International Beit Din’s support in December 2013.

Still, despite support from abroad, the new religious court has already met with resistance here. According to a source close to the court, several leading rabbis at Yeshiva University, including Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, have already expressed reservations about the court’s methodology. The source wished to remain anonymous in order to avoid “mahchlocet,” public disagreement.

Both Rabbi Willig and Rabbi Schachter declined to comment.

Other rabbis committed to resolving the agunah crisis raise issues about the most appropriate methodologies. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and a progressive voice in Modern Orthodoxy, said that “we don’t need innovative approaches.” He is a strong advocate of hafkaat kidushin, an approach that abrogates the marriage retroactively, similar to the approach used by the late Rabbi Rackman.

Though a longtime activist on this issue, Rabbi Riskin does not serve on a divorce court and has not personally handled any agunah cases. According to Rabbi Riskin, his approach has only been successfully used once in an agunah case several decades ago.

“The Talmud has five places in which it establishes a possibility of a religious court abrogating a marriage if the husband is unfairly using the law against his wife,” said Rabbi Riskin, who has written a book on the topic. “The solution already exists, and it’s built into the marriage formula.”

Rabbi Riskin’s approach is not accepted by mainstream authorities in Israel, most of whom maintain the principle of a husband’s absolute right to end the marriage.

“All those who have objected to what I have proposed will object to what he [Rabbi Krauss] is suggesting,” said Rabbi Riskin.

Aside from methodology, the International Beit Din will also implement a new policy of transparency. According to traditional Jewish law, members of the court do not have to give any explanation for their rulings. But Rabbi Ronnie Warburg, director of the International Beit Din and the court’s third judge, explained that “transparency is an imperative.”

“People today assume that the rulings of a beit din are corrupt or uninformed,” he said. “That is why explaining every decision is necessary. We will present our reasoning clearly and openly.”

The International Beit Din also hopes to “cut down the time” it takes for a woman to move through the court system, said Rabbi Warburg. “A woman can wait years to have her case heard and processed,” he said. “We hope to create a more efficient, transparent process.”

Blu Greenberg, a longtime activist on this issue and founder of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is supportive of the new religious court. “There needs to be a systemic change,” she said. “For many other victims of extreme recalcitrance, the problem cannot to be solved on the steps of Congress or on the front page of The New York Times,” said Greenberg, referring to the rallies and public-shaming methods currently used to pressure husbands into giving a get.

“The solutions already exist in the tradition,” she said. “They need to be picked up and put forward by someone brave.”

hannah@jewishweek.org

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