For many years advocates on behalf of agunot (observant Jewish women trapped in unwanted marriages) have sought to resolve the problem through their rabbis. And while many rabbinic authorities have expressed personal empathy and anguish for the plight of these women, the rabbis collectively have insisted that they are powerless in the face of halacha, or Jewish law, which says the husband has the absolute right to determine if and when to end a marriage.
Last week’s Agunah Summit, sponsored by JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and the NYU Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization, brought together scores of activists, scholars and concerned communal leaders to explore a systemic change that takes into account the inherent unfairness of innocent, powerless women as well as the long history of rabbinic interpretations that have eased the hardships of Jews. Those interpretations have reflected the wisdom of compassionate authorities who, as JOFA founder Blu Greenberg noted in her Jewish Week essay, “Seeking Justice For Agunot” (June 21), “enabled Torah law to adapt to the human condition.”
Not surprisingly, the summit did not come up with solutions that will find universal acceptance. Some participants called for reinstituting a compassionate beit din based on the efforts of the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, whose views were rejected by virtually all of his colleagues. Others suggested presenting the agunah problem as a human rights issue rather than just a religious one to garner support beyond the Orthodox community. Still others insist that a systemic solution simply won’t happen under current conditions and that activists should take advantage of opportunities for annulments, as indicated by several widely respected rabbinic leaders.
What the summit accomplished was to focus renewed attention on a problem that remains intractable, to the embarrassment of those who believe halacha is meant to enhance compassion rather than create hardship. We hope the community will respond to the energy of those seeking resolution to the agunah problem so that women who are suffering will find an end to their isolation.
In the meantime, the largest North American group of Orthodox rabbis had an opportunity this week to virtually ensure that no more brides will become agunot. But the members of the Rabbinical Council of America, at their annual conference, chose not to put forth a resolution that would place sanctions on colleagues who officiate at weddings where the groom does not agree to a halachic pre-nuptial agreement designed specifically to prevent future agunot.
Many RCA rabbis already use the pre-nup, and some insist on it. But not all do. And until that happens across the board, there will be couples that opt out, opening themselves up to the potential for future tragedy.
It is time to increase social pressure on our rabbis to find a way to make agunot a problem solved, not one that continues to stain our community.