Helping break the chains of agunot whose husbands refuse divorce – opinion
Increased public awareness and new perspectives in Jewish law bring hope to agunot
By Pnina Omer | December 31, 2020
Imagine for a moment that you’re a woman, not yet 40 years old and a mother of four. You wake up one morning to find that your husband has left you. A few days later, you discover that he not only left you and your family, he’s left the country. Now, half a world away, you are to fend for yourself with whatever he left behind. Every now and then he transfers some money for the children but ignores the massive accumulating debts and rental payments, not to mention the emotional attachment a child needs from their father and that abandonment by a parent makes a child’s life much more challenging.
Amid this daily struggle for survival – practical, financial and emotional – you face another battle: for your freedom.
While your husband has gone on to live a new life, you are an aguna, a trapped woman, “chained” to your marriage and unable to remarry until he decides he is willing to set you free. For over two years you fight a daily battle to provide for your family and bring home something for them to eat. Every day is a struggle to ensure you keep a smile on your face for their sake.
Early in the year, as the world entered its first lockdown, he wrote to you from thousands of miles away saying the “situation had changed” and he could no longer provide for you and your children. What was once a proudly functioning family has been destroyed, and you now have to turn to charity for your basic survival.
As remarkable this story might seem, it is by no means unique. Each year we learn of some 150 women who have become agunot because their husbands refuse to release them from their marriages. Most are living in deeply trying situations that are made all the more difficult by the added burden of legal proceedings, financial struggles, raising children who often have emotional challenges because of the situation, along with other daily issues. Many women are juggling multiple jobs and doing everything they can to carry on with strength and pride for the good of their children.
The negative balances in their bank accounts grow larger by the day until the only option becomes taking out more loans.
This reality was faced by many women over the past year. Every day their reserves were reduced further, exacerbated by the financial struggles of COVID-19 and accompanying lockdowns and closures.
And yet, despite all of this, there were positive developments in 2020 for the aguna movement.
In recent months, as we have continued to help many women wage uphill legal battles to win their freedom, we have experienced no shortage of encouraging successes. Since March, women have been presented with gets (divorce documents) because of our efforts to keep this issue a public concern. Rabbinical and even civil courts have become increasingly supportive of these women’s rights and have backed our claims to impose financial and other sanctions against men who refuse to give their wives a get.
For this reason we remain hopeful that better days lie ahead.
Our greatest optimism comes from the knowledge that more people understand that this situation can change. It can change both by increased public awareness and support and through new perspectives in Halacha (Jewish law) about how the issue is addressed.
We operate with full respect for Halacha and the understanding that the institution of Jewish marriage is defined by ancient traditions of strength and trust between the partners. Judaism is also defined by compassion and a sincere willingness to address the needs of those in pain.
These women are in pain, but it is a pain that can be healed. Our blessing for the coming year is that we work to find new directions – with the full embrace of Halacha – that will allow these women to begin new lives.
The whole world certainly needs a better 2021 but these special women need it more than most.
The writer is the director of Yad La’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot, part of the international Ohr Torah Stone network.