How much credit does the London Beth Din deserve for naming and shaming men who refuse to give their wives a Jewish bill of divorce — a get? Is this really progress, or something else?
Since November, the Beth Din has published three adverts in the Jewish Chronicle asking the community to shun men who are keeping their wives trapped in their marriages. The same notices have appeared in local synagogues. The court has even denied one of the men burial rights.
On the face of things, this is a welcome development, a turning of the screws on men who are using Jewish law to ruin their wives’ lives. It looks as if the Beth Din is stepping up its efforts to solve the plight of the agunot, or chained wives.
But this is a mirage. While the Beth Din has every appearance of acting to help agunot, it is deliberately avoiding the one step that could actually help them, which is to find a halachic way to free them from their marriages.
Instead, it tinkers with the small print.
The idea of naming and shaming get-deniers gained currency in America, where, recently, several women used social media to pressure their husbands into giving them a divorce. It did not always work, but the tactic was adopted by our own Beth Din, and an Israeli one.
The irony is that naming and shaming was originally a tool of last resort by desperate women taking matters into their own hands. The Jewish courts failed to help them, so they turned to the community to exercise their power instead. That our Beth Din is now copying this, deliberately putting the onus of exerting pressure on to the community, is an abdication of its own responsibility.
It’s as if they are saying: “We can’t do it — you solve our problem!” If this is how justice is administered, the system is broken.
Of course, the idea of excommunication is not new. But it is neither appropriate nor effective in the modern era. Denying a Jew entrance into synagogue, refusing to do business deals with him or greet him, all these were powerful threats in a pre-modern society where Jews were forced to stay within their communities.
But when Jews live in open societies, excommunication has no power. Indeed, two of the men who were named promptly left the country, leaving their wives further from a solution. The third has not relented either.
So why have the dayanim not adopted one of the many halachic solutions that have been mooted — from annulling marriages to having husbands deposit a get before the chuppah — or come up with their own innovative idea?
The usual excuse is that the solutions suggested so far are halachically problematic. Yet rabbis have found solutions to polygamy, the Torah’s prohibition on lending money on interest and any number of complex issues over the centuries.
Critics claim that the rabbis don’t care enough, because men are (with rare exceptions) not affected by the agunah problem. This is closer to the truth. But the root is deeper. The Charedi rabbinical establishment has repeatedly shown that it is loath to empower women in any way. Giving women equal choice over when their marriage ends and taking this power away from men would disturb the natural order, as they see it.
Luckily, much of the Orthodox community is moving on, which is why the plight of the agunot is becoming a cause célèbre. Ultimately, there must be a takanah, or rabbinic edict, to end this tragedy once and for all.
The London Beth Din can take the lead in convening the rabbis. Or it can continue to pretend it is taking action, while letting the agunot suffer in unjust and outrageous circumstances.