We all have that one friend.
Maybe she’s single; maybe she’s been married for ten years. Perhaps she’s divorced; or in the process of separation.
She’s been with him for years. She’s not happy, he doesn’t treat her well.
But she keeps going back. Again, and again, and again. Even if they’re not married, the energetic tie is there. And it keeps her tied. So tightly.
Then one day she finally decides that it’s time. She’s done.
But just because she’s reached that pinnacle of self-love and wants to let go, it doesn’t mean the universe is as kind in releasing her from his clutches.
Sometimes there’s a complex custody agreement, or financial arrangements.
Sometimes, after years of telling her she’s worthless and should just go, he’s coming back all contrite and telling her that he really does need her in his life.
Sometimes it’s a combination of codependence and loneliness that keeps them running back to one another even when they know it’s time to move on.
But separation is never easy, after having maintained an energetic bond all this time.
But what if it was even harder?
What if, along with the challenges of separating mind, body and spirit from another , there was another part of it – one bound by legalities, by external factors – and it was a battle she couldn’t win?
What if there were forces actively at play, outside your own psyche, telling you to get back together with the man, that you can’t leave him yet, that you haven’t fully paid your dues or done all you can do?
Many of us have a friend like that too. She is called an Agunah.
What is an Agunah?
Agunah, literally “chained woman”, is a term in Jewish law for a woman who is still tied to her husband without a legal Jewish writ of divorce, or “Gett”.
The history of Agunot goes back to the ancient Israelite kingdom, when men would give their wives a conditional divorce before going out to battle, with the intention that should they go missing, their wives would be free to remarry without concern about identifying a body.
After all, in Jewish law, women are not permitted to be polyandrous. A man may have more than one wife, but a woman cannot be married to more than one husband. And therefore, if her husband is presumed dead but actually lives; or if she is presumed divorced but not actually divorced; any children born of future marriages are doomed to second-class status as Jewish community citizens.
And so begins a period of Jewish legal concern that spans from Biblical times, through the Middle Ages, to our days today. Of women whose husbands went missing on long voyages to the Far East, where Rabbis went to great extents to find loopholes to exonerate her; such is the importance of emancipating a Jewish woman and giving her freedom to reproduce again, to live her own life, to be freed from a marriage that is, for all intents and purposes, already over.
Who Are The Agunahs Today?
In the Middle Ages, Agunahs were often women whose husbands had simply gone missing – think women with husbands who spent the morning of September 11 at the World Trade Center and where DNA tests couldn’t verify any bodily remains, yet are most certainly widows. In these cases, Rabbis have spent extraordinary amounts of time looking for legal loopholes to showcase that beyond a shadow of doubt, these women no longer have husbands on this living earth.
But then we move into modern times. We move into the time of today; where in Israel and America, Rabbinic courts are staffed by men who don’t follow in the footsteps of their compassionate forebears, the men who once combed Halachic books to find a way to free a chained woman – but staffed by a significant portion of Rabbis* who happily coddle recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives the document that would set her free, certain that the narratives of contemporary society are true.
“If I give her the Gett, I’ll never get to see the kids. We have to iron that out first.”
“You don’t understand how often men are abused by the courts system. I want to give her what she wants, but first, I need to make sure my needs are covered.”
In Israel, where all divorces are under the Rabbinic courts, this has escalated into corruption beyond comprehension, where “bribes” in the form of “legal fees” have become commonplace; where men who refuse to give their wives a Gett are often justified; where women are labelled with the emotional and irrational brush more than empathized with; and most simply:
Where the Gett is used as a continuous tool of abuse, to be held over the woman’s head until she cries, “Patriarchy!” and gives up whatever rights, whatever self esteem she had remaining.
It’s Beyond Agunah, Though
I’m not going to pretend that I’m completely knowledgeable over every inch of this arena of legal, historical and Halachic complexities.
But I will say that the Agunah problem stems from a very common root in Halachic Judaism, and most societies in general where the men have been allowed to make the rules for thousands of years as women go quiet.
It’s the other. It’s thinking that this is not my problem, because it’s not me.
Last year, I wrote about the Agunah crisis in comparison to a discussion around the breast pump several years ago. In 2013, a Hackathon was arranged for engineers to come together and find a better way to pump. Why?
Because, the organizers explained, technology’s actually advanced us to a point where the breast pump no longer needs to be the noisy, cumbersome piece of equipment it is. In fact, it should be as “sleek as an iPhone and as quiet as a Prius by now” – certainly not an awkward walk to the back corner of the office by even the most accomplished, senior female in the organization.
Yet, it hasn’t been at the forefront of engineering budgeting priorities.
Simply, because it isn’t used by half the population.
If having a quiet simple breast pump means nothing to you, and you’re the designator of R&D budgets and also, incidentally, do not lactate, then you will not add it as a budget item.
And if you are a male Orthodox Rabbi, and you have not felt the pain of being tied to a man who has emotionally abused you for years; the sisterhood solidarity of knowing that it could be you next; then in all likelihood perhaps you haven’t prioritized combing over the laws of Halachic divorce to help the woman in front of you to get the Gett she needs.
I hesitate to tar everyone with the same brush, and I’m familiar enough with writing about Orthodoxy to know that the response usually comes here: Not all men. Not all Rabbis. Not every man is an abuser. Of course. Of course.
But the fact remains that the Gett is a highly touted form of abuse; both in Israeli and American court systems- and internationally, simply because it’s there. A woman needs to receive the Gett from her husband, she cannot initiate it on her own. And as long as the power is in her husband’s hands, she is automatically on a backfoot.
And the Rabbinic system is not helping.
Rabbis are not evil monsters, contrary to popular opinion. They’re real men with real hearts; real desires to improve humanity – why else would they exist in an often thankless job? I refer here not to the truly corrupt – that exists in every scene – but those who are genuinely trying to help out, but get flummoxed and confused when it comes to these “women’s issues”.
Aah, these feminists, they cry. We’ll never win with them. And we must be careful of Halacha. They don’t understand Halacha. We cannot force a husband to give a Gett! Otherwise, what of the half-caste “bastard” children who may be produced from a future marriage with that woman, product of a “forced Gett”, which is actually invalid?
I hear you, Rabbis. I know how scary and complex it is. But what have you actually done to help this woman on her Gett path that is somewhere on the scale between lovingly offering her a hand-delivered Gett signed with hearts and flowers and whipping the man into submission with lashes and vinegar?
You see, there is a middle road. And it’s not that hard.
What Orthodox Rabbis Can Do To Help the Agunah Crisis
It might involve sitting down and listening to the woman, empathetically, to understand the true nature of the abuse she is facing, rather than assuming that any word uttered with tears is “crazy”.
It might entail picking up the phone when listening to the husband’s allegations and verifying whether the wife really is absolutely insane as depicted, or simply the product of years of emotional abuse.
It might be swallowing pride or the incessant frum desire to maintain the sacred bedrock of the Jewish home and filling your heart with compassion when these cases come before you, to truly understand the implications of dissolving these ties.
It might be pulling down some books; setting up a conference call with Rabbinic friends overseas, and learning as much as you can about the area so you can work with it effectively and efficiently rather than defensively responding to email chains and blog posts of a complex area of Jewish law that is not your specialty.
And finally, it’s about educating and equipping those who do come to you, not in the throes of this challenge, but newly engaged couples, newlyweds and others, and educating them about their rights. Working to raise awareness on abuse and its prevention; helping all new couples to sign a Halachic prenuptial agreement; and providing marriage counselling with a balanced and fair eye.
It is said that the Shechinah – Divine Presence – cries when there is a lack of Shalom Bayis, harmony in the home. Yet why are some Rabbis so intent on maintaining Shalom Bayis, sending a wife home to “put on some lipstick and cook him dinner and make him happy” (true quote).
These stories are real, and they are happening to the woman sitting next to you.
Solving The Agunah Crisis Starts With the Grassroots
See, these problems seem like widespread issues that we can’t control, but the truth is that each one of these issues happen at home, right in front of our eyes.
We all have that friend. That woman who is suffering. What are we doing to help her?
We can rail out the Rabbis all we want; we can demand the patriarchy step back and fix it; but we can also take a look at ourselves and wonder what’s happening within each of us to keep this pattern perpetuating.
When did we last dismiss an abused woman with her delusions and tears?
When was the last time we invited a single or divorced woman, a single mother to our Shabbat tables and gladly poured another cup of tea to hear her cries even when it’s after 2am and we really, really want to get to bed?
When did you last look at a woman and instead of judging or criticizing her (she’s a mess, no wonder her husband ignores her… she’s too focused on work, no wonder she can’t land a man…) and simply fill our hearts with empathy and compassion that she find the love she needs and wants, first within herself, and then within another?
And when did you secretly judge someone else… she’s not a real agunah. She’s made just as much drama in ending this marriage as he did. If she’s waiting for a gett, it’s not that bad – it hasn’t been as long as the woman next door, instead of feeling her pain and openly supporting her in whichever form the abuse has taken?
Not all Agunot are fighting court wars. Not all Agunot have been abused in marriage. But every single one of them faces the lack of understanding that a societal more brings, the ideology that holding on to a marriage is a woman’s responsibility, that women with excessive emotional reactions are “crazy”, and that if a woman can go home and hold on to her marriage, she’s succeeded in life.
And through empathy, we can help. Through support, we can make a difference.
We all take responsibility.
Every Agunah is our sister.
So What Can We Do To Help Agunot?
It’s not just about political campaigns on Facebook. It’s about supporting single women and single moms in everyday life, in a society that has not been designed for the. I refer not just to the Jewish Orthodox world, but the cultural traditional Jewish framework as well, which pressurizes single women to marry and creates festivals and events around the family framework.
And it’s about a general society which is slowly shifting to accommodate single women more and more – politically a strong class of voters – and showing them how they are accepted in our society, with love and free of judgement.
It’s as simple as answering the phone and listening when your friend wants to talk to someone at the end of a long day parenting, without a partner to unload it on.
It’s as simple as inviting along a single or divorced friend to a couple’s only party or event; or letting a single parent bring kids along to a no-kids event.
It's giving your friend the courage to leave her abusive husband, to battle through the maze of the Jewish court system, knowing she is being supported throughout.
It’s as easy as opening your heart and mind to think of her needs for a few moments and showing her how she can access that through compassion, love and empathy.
Because the real victory for Agunot will not be when the men no longer abuse the women – it will be when women no longer abuse themselves, when we can all achieve a level of self-love and lack of judgement or self-criticism that doesn’t allow anybody else to give it to us, because we give it to ourselves.
Because when every woman reaches a level of security and self-love within herself, she won’t accept anything from anybody else – they won’t even be able to send it in her direction.
Learning from Queen Esther on International Agunah Day
Queen Esther, Jewish Heroine. We all know about her, we’ve all dressed up as her, but why? What did she do, specifically, that was beyond the pale of ordinary heroism?
We won’t talk about her in comparison to the Disney Princesses; or how she was an orphaned girl who risked everything to go live in the king’s palace, undercover, in an attempt to save her people. Let’s instead zoom in on one key scene in the Megillah story, when Queen Esther is asked by her cousin /uncle / adopted father / husband (depending on which Midrashic commentary you prefer to stand by), to go to the king and petition on behalf of the Jewish people.
Esther is up front and honest.
“Mordechai, I get it. The Jews need me, and I need to step up. I know what you’re saying. But do you have any CLUE how intense this is? Do you even REALIZE that I’m heading into the lion’s den? Usually, I can sweet talk the king here and there. If I’m in his bed, he’ll listen to whatever I have to see. But he hasn’t even called me yet this month. He’s nowhere near my vibe right now, he doesn’t get me, and you know the punishment – it’s death. Are you really going to not just risk this whole plot, but risk me as well?”
Mordechai is not sympathetic.
“Esther. I get it. Trust me, I get it. Do you think I want to lose you too? But here’s the thing. This is how the universe works. If you give up now, that’s fine. Salvation is going to happen anyway. There is a Divine plan, that’s been running through this entire drama, that assures us that the Jewish people are going to be saved, because goodness will always triumph evil even when it looks like we’re not gonna make it.
But. Here’s the thing. You’ve got to step up. Because this whole plan has been about you this entire time, and you’ve been put in this place to do it – who knows, maybe this is why you were sent to the palace. So if you don’t want to, that’s fine. But just know – salvation will come to the people some other way, but you’ll be missing your chance to fulfil your destiny, to do what you need to do to help the people.
You’ve been put here for this reason. To stand in front of the king and petition the people. Everything that’s happened until now has been for this. You can take the chance and run with it, because it’s your destiny.
Or, you can let it go. But just remember, the only loser here will be you. Because the people will be saved some other way, but you and your name and family’s name will be lost from history forever.”
So Esther thinks about it. And now she knows it’s up to her, to open herself up completely to the vulnerability of death and use her faith in God to get her through this holy, sacred cause. She’s ready to put her life on the line. But she has to tell Mordechai one more thing.
“Listen, Mordechai. I understand what you’re saying to me. And I am prepared to take one for the team. I always have been.
But you’re all coming with me.
This may be my destiny, to be the messenger and the martyr for all, but I’m doing this for the sake of the people, so I need you all with me. I need every single person in Persia – the women! The kids! The babies! To fast and pray with me for three entire days. Don’t eat, don’t wear nice clothes, just throw on some sackcloth and talk to God and send me the loving vibrations that will empower me and protect me on this mission to the king.”
Why We Pray With Esther on Ta’anit Esther and on Agunah Day
Esther knows what prayer is. It isn’t about asking an old man in the sky to be good to you, about beseeching for a change of heart. It’s about creating that change of heart ourselves. About going into a deep space of true love and empathy, of creating a vibration of love that can transcend barriers and reach out from one person to the next, so that those who are out there fighting the good fight on their own are protected and cushioned from the hamful forces.
Esther isn’t asking for everyone else to go to the king with her. She knows it’s her destiny, and she is prepared to do it.
What she’s asking, what she’s praying for, is that everyone pray with her. That everyone put themselves in her place, and feel into that need, that desperation, that desire to save her people, knowing that it’s not just Esther’s people – it’s our own selves. To feel that true empathy, that true love, by experiencing it viscerally through a fast day.
And in that moment, she rises, protected, and moves on to pursue her destiny.
What About Agunot?
Agunot are on the forefront of a long-fought battle, to change the perception of women in the traditional Jewish community; in society; and specifically in the Orthodox Jewish community.
But they’re not the only ones. They may be the ones who have been selected by destiny, but they are fighting for all of us. For our freedom, for our daughters and sisters and mothers and lovers and beloveds, for every one of us, to be the women we can be without being told by another what we’re meant to be.
They’re fighting ancient systems that were created with the best of intentions but have evolved into strongholds of fear; where building a higher wall leads to security rather than fortifying the entire stronghold with the best preservative – honey.
So when Esther goes to the king, knowing that she is putting her life on the line yet doing it to fulfil her destiny and elevate the entire people, she needs all of us in it with her.
She needs everyone behind her, fasting and praying.
Our Agunot need us, behind them.
Hearing their stories, telling them over to others, fighting the good fight in our own homes and conversations and workplaces and bars and cafes. Informing others of the plight, and doing things in our own small ways. Educating Rabbinic authorities so they are empowered to make better decisions. Equipping new, soon-to-be-married or current married people with the preventative form of a Halachic prenup.
And loving them, praying with them, showing our sisters that we are with them, and they’re not alone in the long, cold walk to the king.
* Not All Rabbis. Not All Men. If I hear this in the comments section, I’ll assume you didn’t read the starred portion. I love Rabbis. Some of my best friends are Rabbis. Almost all of my family are Rabbis. Don’t tell me I’m not understanding and tarring all Rabbis with the same brush. i know that there are loving, beautiful compassionate Rabbis who cry as they shepherd women through the divorce proceedings. I also know many Rabbis who demand money; who listen to the man over the woman; who tell a lady to go home and make her man happy because there is nothing worse than a Jewish divorce. I also know that even the most loving and compassionate Rabbi can do this, because he’s been taught that the Shechina cries when a marriage is over. I’m talking about this story that has framed a narrative that has been around for years, and that is what has caused this situation.