A woman falls into a pit. “Help!” she cries. Alarmed, people gather around and see that she’s just beyond reach. A man, thinking she must be cold, grabs a blanket from a nearby ladder and sends it down.
“Thank you,” she says, “but I’d really like to get out of here. Maybe use the…”
“No telling how long you’ll be there,” yells another man and rushes to get her a sandwich, tripping over a long rope.
“Could you please just…”
“Let’s pray for her salvation!” says a kind woman. Together they beseech the heavens.
If this sounds bizarre even for Chelm, it may be shocking to know that in Jerusalem, stranger things are happening. Well-intentioned but deeply misguided suggestions are being made to help agunot, women whose husbands are unable or unwilling to release them from marriage. Far from helping women in this situation, these proposals only serve to entrench the idea of agunot as a fact of life to be accommodated — and not an intolerable situation to be eradicated.
A real-life story that illustrates the consequences of being an agunah: Sara and Ben moved to Israel from Argentina. Five years later, Ben went back “to collect an inheritance” and didn’t return. Sara discovered he had taken her ketubah (marriage contract, meant to remain in the wife’s possession), ID, and all their money.
Within weeks, collectors repossessed nearly everything in the house to cover Ben’s debts. Sara couldn’t rid herself of his debts without a divorce, and she couldn’t get a divorce without his participation. In Israel, there is no civil divorce, only religious divorce which means a husband must present a get (Jewish writ of divorce) to his wife to free her.
Her “married” status meant that without her husband’s permission, she had limited authority, from finances to medical decisions. Eventually, she entered into a new relationship and became pregnant
Because she was officially still married, any child born from another man would be a “mamzer” — an illegitimate child, born of a prohibited relationship, who may only marry another mamzer or a convert. The descendants of mamzerim are mamzerim forever. It is a terrible status that rabbis have traditionally gone to great lengths to prevent and, with great pain, Sara aborted the pregnancy.
Later, when her eldest daughter tried to register for marriage, the Rabbinate demanded: “Prove you’re Jewish.” The same body that cemented her mother’s Jewish marriage for years was demanding proof of it. But her father had stolen the ketubah; she had no proof.
Sara received her get after 32 years. Her daughters told this story at a Knesset meeting and pleaded that the state establish “agunah” as a legal status that grants agunot governmental assistance.
Unfortunately, a status of agunah would not have helped Sara. It will not help most women because a woman is only an agunah when the rabbinical court declares her one, and most women seeking divorce never achieve this status.
Similarly misguided is a proposal meant to preserve the fertility of agunot until they are free to have legitimate children. The state would pay to freeze their eggs until they receive a divorce. Then, if the Rabbinate approves, the woman may attempt to have children. Among other issues, this gives the woman’s reproductive rights to the Rabbinate.
Creating a legal status for agunot or freezing their eggs is like throwing blankets to a woman in a pit. They seek to alleviate symptoms instead of dealing with the cause. Yet, they fail there too. Worse, these ideas enable the establishment to shirk its responsibility to use the tools at its disposal.
As in our story, the tools exist to save these women. Immediate steps can be taken to improve the process of divorce. The easiest is outlawing get extortion (where one party demands concessions in exchange for the get). If extortion is off the table, one cannot profit from get refusal and the temptation is eliminated.
Requiring prenups that deter get refusal is another simple and important move. Other steps, such as changes in marriage and divorce procedures, might be harder to normalise, but would help women like Sara whose husbands disappear.
There are good people working on all of these solutions. Our part is to advocate for local leadership to make this a priority. We have the tools. We must use them.
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist