Dr Adrienne Baker

Agunot Campaign Forum Speech

Dr. Adreinne Baker.

‘Seeking Halachic Solutions to the Problems of Get and Agunah’

LONDON, 13 NOVEMBER 2000

I am delighted to have the opportunity of speaking here this evening but am saddened by the absence of the Chief Rabbi. He is attending a charity dinner for World Jewish Relief, although what we are discussing here also concerns world Jewish relief. Nor are any of the dayanim present, nor any formal representative from the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Although I am pleased to see – and look forward to meeting – the leader of the newly formed Get Task Force, I cannot but wonder what message the religious establishment is sending us.

We were not the first group of women to research the problem of Get and Agunah. There were women campaigners thirty years ago. When in 1992 Rosalind Preston invited me to join her on the Women’s Review and to form a Get Research Group, I approached two of those earlier stalwarts – Googie Graham and Ruth Winston Rox. Both wished us luck but said how disheartened they had been that all efforts had been so unsuccessful. Undeterred, and inspired by the Chief Rabbi’s request that we ‘heed the unheeded’, we nevertheless set out to listen to women who were trapped – many during their childbearing years – in the status of agunah. We also sought the guidance of rabbinim and dayanim and learned how intractable the situation within halacha seems to be.

Over the two years that we asked questions and listened and studied the problem, I was reminded of a concept put forward by the sociologist, Max Gluckman. Writing in 1964, he coined the expression ‘rituals of rebellion’ to describe the process in which those with the power to define and enforce the rules give a semblance of freedom to those without such power. Such freedom is, of course, illusory: it allows the disenfranchised to enquire, after which the status quo is reinforced.

I want to emphasise that our understanding right from the beginning was that halacha cannot change. We were all campaigning from within observant Judaism. But our hope had been that, in its interpretation and implementation, there could be a halachically valid way to ensure that women would no longer remain in such a disadvantaged position.

The report of the Women’s Review, including our findings and recommendations, was published in 1994. What was the research intended to produce? We raised the hopes of many women – if not for them, for their daughters or their granddaughters – only to have their expectations thwarted when nothing with any enforceability resulted. That individual rabbis find individual solutions is good and desirable but what is needed are global solutions which are halachically accepted and enforced. Seeking solutions through the civil law – as Sharon Shenhav has outlined – should not absolve the rabbis and dayanim from seeking halachically valid solutions. We believe that there are halachic scholars who are respected and who could offer such answers, but who fear being marginalised.
There are certain pivotal questions we need to ask:

1. Why does the community continued to tolerate a situation in which women are so disadvantaged in an aspect of religious law?
2. Why has no effort been made by our religious leaders to ascertain how many women reluctantly leave Orthodoxy in order to remarry (thus, in halachic terms, entering an adulterous relationship). In our research we interviewed many. Often they deny themselves children in their second marriage rather than bring mamzerim into the world. Is Orthodox Judaism so secure or so uncaring that the pain of these women, forced to move out of the community where spiritually they still belong, is of no significance? Does their loss not matter?
3. Why is so little heed paid to women within the strictly Orthodox community who will not protest? (At a recent Orthodox barmitzvah celebration, several of the women at my table commented on the importance of our vigils but, when I suggested that they join us, they replied, ‘We can’t; we daren’t!’)
4. How useful is the advice of the Get Advisory Service when it is tied to the Beth Din?

In relation to the get, I would like to illustrate the sort of problems we are discussing with the stories of two women’s lives:

The first woman has six children. Two were born during her marriage and are halachically Jewish. Subsequently, the couple divorced but the husband withheld the get. After many years as an agunah, she remarried, but this has to be outside Orthodoxy. Two children were born – mamzerin. Then the first husband decided to remarry within Orthodoxy which required his granting her a get. Some time later, she and her second husband had two more children – halachically Jewish, because now she had the get. But despite the get, she was not permitted to remarry her second husband in an Orthodox synagogue, which they wanted to do, because their union was regarded as an adulterous relationship.

The second woman, in her early forties, is married to a man recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. At present his deterioration is only physical. With compassion her United Synagogue rabbi has advised her that, if she should want to be free eventually to remarry, she must ask her husband for a get now, whilst he is still mentally aware. Her reply to the well-meaning rabbi was that her husband’s suffering is enough without her inflicting more distress on him.

As well as the inconsistencies and injustices in the get situation, of which we are only too aware, there are also certain anomalies which are less well known. I am told (Geoffrey Blumenthal, JMC, 14.1.94) that if an agunah marries a non-Jew and they have a child, that child is not a mamzer.

What has resulted in terms of possibilities within halacha since the Women’s Review? Essentially, two measures:

1. The Prenuptial Agreement. But we must note its unbinding character. That it is a ‘declaration of intent’ is of no value when a marriage breaks down and when animosity results in a recalcitrant spouse who makes extortionate demands (and in these situations we must ask if the Beth Din condones blackmail).
2. The possibility of communal sanctions. But women are reluctant for these to be used, fearing domestic violence or that, out of spite, the get will never be granted.

When we began our research, there was much ambivalence in the wider community to our doing it. Reactions ranged from,

  1. a) Scepticism – ‘nothing worthwhile will come out of it’

to

  1. b) Opposition – ‘You shouldn’t be questioning. Look at the non-Jewish world in which change is happening all the time. Is that a good place to live? There is no stability, no values.’

It needs to be emphasised that our aim was never to make divorce easier but to press for appropriate responses within halacha to situations when a marriage broken down and no get is forthcoming. We acknowledge the rabbis’ concern and yet we also note their seeming lack of options within halacha.

But the research and the subsequent vigils have achieved a most important goal: to give prominence to the problem and to remind us that Judaism has always been motivated by the concept of tikkun olam: to heal the world. If not now, when?

facebooktwitterlinkedinmail