Only the rabbis can end the agony of chained women
Co-founder of the Agunot Campaign
The new legislation to ease the plight of agunot has finally received the royal assent and become law. Judges will have the power to withhold a decree absolute if a Jewish husband refuses to give his wife a religious bill of divorce – a get. While this should be a cause for celebration, nobody should be under the illusion that it will bring to an end the problem of chained wives and the appalling suffering that they have to endure. As an agunah myself for 20 years, I am only too well aware of this.
In a sense, the agunot campaign was already in my blood when I was born. I grew up seeing the injustice suffered by those who survive the devastation of the second world war and I remember my father working tirelessly to save refugees from Europe, helping them to find new homes and rebuild their lives. After a happy childhood in a traditional Jewish home, I married young and had two sons and a daughter. In 1975, my marriage ended in a civil divorce, and I was vaguely aware that I needed to obtain a religious divorce too.
Thinking this would be a formality, I went to the beth din and found, to my horror, that my husband had refused to issue a get. His reason was that, as a cohen, he was forbidden to marry a divorced woman; he was sure that I would want to return to him and, if he gave me a get, we would be unable to remarry.
I soon learned how my whole life would be blighted by my agunah status. If I had a relationship with another man, it would be considered adulterous and, even in if I eventually received a get, I would not be able to marry him. If I had children while an agunah, then they would be illegitimate according to Jewish law, and would be able to marry only others of the same status. I tried to avoid brooding over my problems by throwing myself in to helping Soviet refuseniks and victims of rape.
My breakthrough came in 1995, when I received a call from the Guardian. They wanted to print an article about chained Jewish wives so I gave an interview and they featured my story. My son showed the article to my ex-husband and convinced him that, after 20 years apart there was no chance of reconciliation.
He relented and I was summoned to the beth din to receive my get. I was free at last, and suddenly I began to wonder how many others were still chained and what I could do to help them. Shortly afterwards, I met another agunah, Sandra Blackman, and between us we founded the agunot campaign.
Our first event was a demonstration outside the office of the chief rabbi. We were concerned that the pre-nuptial agreement (PNA), designed to deter husbands from withholding the get in the event of a divorce, had still not been implemented more than two years after its announcement. The demonstration received coverage in the Jewish and national media, and suddenly we were news. A month later, another demonstration followed at Northwood synagogue, where the chief rabbi attended the consecration. Demonstrations throughout Britain were planned for the following month. However Sky News informed me of the announcement of the implementation of the PNA, so our protest now became a celebration.
In the autumn of 1999 we planned another demonstration outside the chief rabbi’s office. This time, I had a regular slot on Spectrum radio. During one broadcast, Jeremy Newmark phoned from the chief rabbi’s office, to ask us to call off the demonstration. It was too late to do so, but he agreed that we could send a deputation for a discussion. Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the United Synagogue beth din, ruled out any measures to alleviate the plight of agunot.
Until the end of 1999, the campaign organised protests and vigils, but then we started to concern ourselves with the individual cases. News came to us about a young couple who had divorced 18 months earlier. The husband was withholding a get and, despite protracted efforts by the batei din, had remained intransigent. The wife asked for help so we arranged regular protests outside the husband’s family business. After three weeks, during which there was a huge amount of publicity , the chief rabbi intervened personally to bring the matter to a speedy conclusion. Since then, we have successfully negotiated 20 gittin. I wear 20 agunot awareness pins, representing each of our successes.
We have very good relations with the batei din and most of our work is done is the strictest of confidence. We prefer to settle cases amicably, by gaining the trust of both parties and we seek publicity for individual cases only as a last resort, when the husband totally refuses to attend the beth din or take part in any mediation.
Why does a man refuse to grant his wife a get after their marriage has ended? In my own case the reason was a misguided belief that there might be reconciliation. Such cases are rare, and the most common reason is the belief that the wife may be persuaded to give the husband money, property or even a house in order to secure a get. In other cases, the motivation is sheer malice towards the ex-wife.
I am often asked how many agunot there are. We will never know, as many are too ashamed to make their plight public. We know of many cases in the UK…I am presently working with six and there are probably thousands in Israel.
Our campaign does not seek to change or reform Jewish law. Every failure of a husband to grant a get is an abuse of halacha but, so far, the rabbinical authorities have failed to bring to this problem the imagination and enlightened thinking that has resolved so many other problems in the past. While we welcome the new legislation, it is merely a stop-gap as it will not help if the ex-husband has decided to live with, but not marry, another woman, or whether he has no immediate intention of entering into another relationship.
The only true solution lies in the hands of the rabbis