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Review: The Wed-Locked Agunot

Chained women: a continuing scandal

    Susan Aranoff and Rivka Haut
    McFarland, £45.50

    This is a book best avoided on Shabbat because its contents would disturb anyone's rest. It is the most shocking book I can recall on Judaism in many years.

    Susan Aranoff and the late Rivka Haut were founders in the mid-80s of Agunah Inc, an American advocacy and support group for agunot - women trapped in a dead marriage because their husbands have denied them a get, a religious divorce.

    Critical of batei din, they emphasise the inequity of current Orthodox application of Jewish law whereby a man whose wife refuses to accept a get may be permitted by the rabbis to remarry, but the same is generally not true vice versa. Drawing on 30 years' experience of the American rabbinic system, they document the dilemma of women whose husbands, in return for a get, try to extort a less favourable financial settlement than was awarded their wives by civic courts.

    In one case, a woman who found her husband molesting their daughter was pressed by rabbis to drop criminal charges if she wanted her get.

    Agunah Inc's files contain "many stories of black and blue bruises, broken limbs, fathers sexually abusing sons and daughters, women terrified of husbands who assault or threaten to assault them".

    The authors expose the shortcomings of measures introduced by rabbis to try to prevent the incidence of agunot - such as various prenuptial agreements.

    One or two major rabbinic figures such as Rav Moshe Feinstein were prepare quietly to annul some marriages rather than leave a woman stranded. But sadly, the book also reports the storm of opposition met by the few Orthodox rabbis who bravely defied consensus and openly freed women via loopholes which they believe are available within halachah.

    "Judaism's moral fabric and reputation is damaged by this festering disgrace," it concludes. Who could disagree?

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