How chained women can be freed

At last a solution is at hand to correct the injustice of the agunah

By Bernard Jackson, July 30, 2009

Over the past five years, my team at Manchester University has been working towards a “roadmap” that could resolve the 2,000-year-old problems endured by Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get — a religious divorce. The plight of “chained wives” — in Hebrew, agunot (singular agunah) — causes much suffering to a very substantial number of Jewish women across the world.

If they enter a new relationship without a get, they are branded as adulterers and their children are illegitimate — a status which, according to the rabbis, affects all future generations. The system is deeply unfair: the children of husbands who remarry are not deemed illegitimate, as long as their mothers are not themselves “chained”.

It is not as though Jewish leaders are unaware of the problem: for centuries they have agonised over it, and at times have adopted some radical solutions. Today’s rabbinic leaders, however, argue that they lack the authority to implement such measures.

We accept that the solution does not reside in any “one size fits all” formula; rather, we need a plurality of approaches, based in halachah, suited to the needs of different sections of the Jewish community (even within Orthodoxy) who interpret the law in different ways.

We must find a way for communities to recognise children as legitimate even if their mother’s first marriage was dissolved in a way they themselves discourage, so that intermarriage between the different communities remains possible. Indeed, the agunah is not relevant only to the Orthodox community: religious mobility, based on individual choice, must be available to the children of non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox marriages.

Transparency and informed choice are crucial to this process: a means must be found to ensure that every couple make choices on the basis of accurate knowledge of the consequences, not only in their own community but also elsewhere. We make the following practical suggestions which we hope may achieve this:

First, pastoral arrangements are required to ensure that every couple who enter into a traditional Jewish marriage are made fully aware of the risks they may incur in the event of marital breakdown. They also need to be aware of the attitudes of both their own and other sections of the community to any agreement they are contemplating.

This role may be fulfilled either by their own rabbi or by specialist counsellors appointed for this purpose by the congregational organisation to which they belong.

Second, couples contemplating marriage must have an opportunity to address the risk of the woman becoming an agunah, by being offered a choice. Some may make an agreement modifying traditional Jewish marriage; others may opt for an alternative form. Both options can avoid later problems. And third, each institutional religious authority should publish its stance on each of the issues involved in any proposals for modification of traditional Jewish marriage.

We advocate an incremental approach, a roadmap towards a “global” solution. It may well commence, subject to appropriate rabbinic approvals, within a small number of communities. But religious mobility will inevitably result in the presentation of such modified forms to more traditional communities, often in the form of marriage applications by the next generation. This, we hope, may gradually lead to recognition across different sections of the Jewish community.

Once a sufficient momentum has developed in favour of a particular solution (within traditional Jewish marriage), the time will come for a meeting of the leading halachic authorities. It is these leaders who have the ultimate power to make any solution standard in all marriages. At that stage, the solution will finally become global.

Calls for such a meeting have not been lacking. In earlier decades, it was natural to look to Israel for such a lead. Today, it would be opportune for diaspora rabbinic leaders to cast off any self-imposed reticence.
In today’s polarised religious climate, attempts have been made to impose very strict standards on the entire community and that can lead only to fracture and stalemate. Our approach, by contrast, seeks to re-unite the Jewish community, and has the capacity to do so, if endorsed in a spirit of mutual goodwill. The starting point is for those with responsibly in this area at least to read our very detailed analysis, and not just dismiss it.

Professor Bernard Jackson is director of the Agunah Research Unit, Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester

Last updated: 2:18pm, July 31 2009