A major initiative was launched this week to resolve one of the most problematic issues in Jewish law — the plight of the agunah, the “chained woman”, unable to remarry because her husband has denied her a get, a religious bill of divorce.
An academic team from Manchester University is today publishing a “roadmap” towards possible solutions after a five-year investigation.
Professor Bernard Jackson, a specialist in Jewish law and director of the university’s Agunah Research Unit, warned: “There is no single magic bullet to solve the problem.”
The team’s proposals “may commend themselves initially only to particular Orthodox communities”, he said.
But he hoped that once communities began to consider some of the recommended measures, the time would come to ask for “a meeting of the world rabbinic authorities, with a view to making these arrangements available globally”.
The findings are contained in a book-length report, which will initially appear online, following an exhaustive examination of talmudic and rabbinic sources in order to find precedents.
According to Jewish law, a woman can be divorced only if a man gives her a get willingly. If she does not obtain one and she then has children with another man, they will be considered mamzerim and forbidden to marry other natural-born Jews (they can only marry converts or other mamzerim).
Although rabbinic courts have allowed a certain amount of pressure to be put on recalcitrant husbands — ordering them to be beaten, or in Israel, placed in jail — if these methods fail, the wife is left trapped.
As Professor Jackson pointed out in a lecture in Manchester on Tuesday, “Even the most severe forms of ‘coercion’… are not guaranteed to work, as the case of the Yemeni man who ultimately died in prison [in Israel] after 32 years shows”.
The man had been jailed for consistently refusing his wife a get.
His research team looked at retroactive annulment of a marriage by a rabbinic court, and attaching conditions to the marriage contract which could make its future dissolution easier.
Another option suggested in the report is an “alternative form of marriage” — which would be similar but distinct from the traditional Jewish practice. “In short, one can create a sanctified form of marital relationship which may be terminated without a get,” Professor Jackson said.
But he explained that given different approaches to Jewish law within the Orthodox world, “it is no longer sufficient to seek a solution which may prove acceptable within a particular branch of the Orthodox community, but be rejected elsewhere. Indeed, there may be no ‘one size fits all’ formula, but rather a plurality of approaches suited to the needs of different communities.
“The bottom line, however, is that any solution must be capable of achieving mutual recognition, so that the children of remarriages are not regarded as kosher by some communities but mamzerim by others.”
The report, which cost £300,000 to produce and included one rabbi, Yehudah Abel, on the team, also recommends action to stop husbands extorting large sums of money from their wives in return for agreeing to give a get.
Anticipating some of the likely response, Professor Jackson told his audience: “You may regard this as utopian, and ask why anyone should listen to us. At the outset of this project I would have agreed. More recently, I have become somewhat more encouraged, but it would be counterproductive to tell you why.
“But we all know that media battles are only one level of politics, and what really matters commonly takes place behind closed doors.”
Manchester Beth Din’s Dayan Yehudah Steiner, however, was critical. He said: “What Professor Jackson and his team are doing is not going to solve the problem.
“To force your way through the problem with Jewish law that many won’t accept doesn’t do any couple any favours. You have to help the couple to help themselves.”
For the full report, see here