Saving the Souls on the Edge
Rabbi Kenneth Brander 27/07/2021
It is easier for the human psyche to think in terms of extremes, of extraordinary and improbable situations. We can identify them more easily, and classify them within dichotomies of black-or-white; allowed or forbidden; important or trivial. We hope (and presume) that we will find ourselves on the easier side of the balance of life, while treating the possibilities on the far extreme as distant from our reality, confident they will never come to pass for us.
This thought ran through my mind again in light of the onset of wedding season, which is now at its peak, reawakening public discourse on the phenomenon of get abuse in general, and in particular the halakhic prenuptial agreements designed to prevent it.
It has been over 35 years since I was ordained as a rabbi, and despite the many years that have passed, I continue revisiting the question – what is our role as rabbis, vis a vis individuals, the communities we work in, and the Torah-observant world at large? As for myself, as time goes by, the answer that I keep returning to is that a major component of our work as spiritual leaders and teachers is our responsibility to provide support for those members of our communities and our people who have faced misfortune, whose life stories have left them with no recourse. They are the ones we are called on to support; they are the ones who deserve to find a safe haven among us; they are the ones to whom we should give voice; they are the ones for whom we need to continue searching for solutions within the boundaries of halakha.
“A society’s resilience is measured by its treatment of its weakest members,” wrote the poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, expressing succinctly what is, in fact, a cornerstone of the Torah’s moral vision, as taught to us by Rabbi Soloveitchik ztz”l, my esteemed teacher, based on the verse “the orphan and the widow you shall not abuse.” In light of this, how can we say to women who are agunot or victims of get refusal, who face a misfortune which, for them, is ‘as tragic as the destruction of the Temple,’ that since their problem is the exception and not the norm, we will not invest our best efforts to find whatever halakhic tools are needed to release them? How can we tell them, as they remain chained within marriages whose hourglasses are long since empty, that we have no way to convey their cries to the heart of the Israeli public and the Jewish people at large?
Leading rabbis and halakhic authorities of our generation have faced these questions, and concluded that they could not stay on the sidelines. Rabbis Ovadia Yosef ztz”l and Zalman Nechemia Goldberg ztz”l are only two examples of the many rabbis who have courageously supported the halakhic prenuptial agreements to prevent get refusal that for years have been recognized as a legitimate halakhic solution, even tracing back to the 17th century Nahalat Shiva.
Added to this are the actual results, which prove beyond any doubt the effectiveness of the prenup in preventing get abuse. Over ten thousand couples have signed the prenup in the US through the Beth Din of America, with the support of the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshiva University, alongside the growing support of the haredi community of North America. Reality has shown that among these couples there has only been one instance of aginut or get refusal.
There are those who claim that in Israel, unlike the US, there is no need for the prenup, since legal sanctions can be imposed on get refusers. Yet this claim is also refuted by the facts, which show that, in reality, many years can go by before these measures are applied, and in the meantime the entire family is held hostage by the get refuser.
A couple’s decision to sign a halakhic prenuptial agreement and to adhere to it, stems from the feelings of love and mutual respect that they hope to uphold even if, God forbid, their marriage comes to an end. Although the agreement raises the option that the couple may one day end the covenant between them – as referred to in the Ketuba itself – not only does this not harm the institution of marriage or encourage divorce, but the opposite is true: it strengthens the institution of marriage and the bond between the couple, who choose mutual respect, for better or for worse.
As the largest organization in the world supporting agunot and victims of get refusal, we unfortunately find ourselves each year fighting the battles of more and more women who are victims of get abuse, knowing that we cannot continue to wait as more and more cases arrive at our doorstep. As parents, we must not allow our children to enter into a marriage without signing a halachic prenup. As rabbis, we must not officiate at weddings without explaining to the couple the importance of this agreement and its repercussions. Together – as a society and as a nation – we bear the responsibility for taking steps to prevent this phenomenon from continuing, building the bridge that will help more and more couples avoid falling into the pit of aginut and get refusal.