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What is an Agunah?
The word “Agunah” means ‘chained’ in Hebrew and refers to a woman who is in a dead marriage but nonetheless cannot remarry. She is therefore “chained to her husband.” Historically, this term referred to a woman whose husband had disappeared with no witnesses to his death and his body was not found. The term is frequently used today to include a woman whose husband refuses to give her a Get. In either case, the tragic result is the same: the woman has no marriage but cannot remarry under Jewish law.
Why is Get Refusal more prevalent today than in generations past?
In previous generations, the threat of being ostracized from the Jewish community was an effective means of preventing Get refusal. In the modern day, sanctions may not be an effective deterrent because the social fabric and power of the Jewish community has greatly weakened. Also, the geographic mobility of recalcitrant husbands has greatly increased, and recalcitrant men may leave the community that knows of their refusal, or be indifferent to social consequences in the Jewish community.
Even in Orthodox communities in America, Rabbinic courts have no legal power and often lack the social power to effectively sanction men who refuse to grant a Get. Most Jewish communities are not united under the auspices of one specific communal body or rabbinical court, thus severely limiting the efficacy of any social or religious sanctions imposed by a given Bet Din. In Israel, where all divorce has to be finalized through the Get process, and where the beit din system is authorized to impose secular penalties such as imprisonment for Get refusal, woman who sues for divorce may be subject to threats of Get Refusal, which compromises her ability to fight for a fair and just settlement--she remains married both civilly and religiously to a recalcitrant husband.
Can a man suffer from Get Refusal?
Yes, but the consequences of remarriage without a Get are not as severe for a man. Although polygamy is not allowed in Judaism today, the status of his future children is not affected. If a man chooses to remarry before he receives a Get from his wife, his children are not considered Mamzerim, or illegitimate, by Jewish law.
Furthermore, because the prohibition against polygamy is Rabbinic rather than Biblical, there are a number of ways to permit remarriage without a get in exceptional circumstances, such as obtaining the signatures of 100 geographically diverse rabbis. These procedures are still used on occasion in Israel, where the legislature has recognized such rabbinic acts as exceptions to the criminal law that prohibits bigamy.
Although making use of this exemption is an arduous and time-consuming recourse, it is one that a female Agunah does not have, because the prohibition against a woman simultaneously marrying two men is biblical, and not subject to rabbinical modification.
Is Jewish divorce law slanted towards the man?
The Biblical legal essence of Jewish marriage is in effect a contractual agreement, wherein the husband commits to feed, clothe, and sexually satisfy his bride, and in exchange, the bride commits to sexual fidelity. The husband also commits to the ketubah, which provides a year of support payments in case of divorce or his death. The husband may end the relationship at will by giving the wife a get, at which point he will have to pay the ketubah. The woman may sue for divorce, but ultimately a get may only be given by a husband “meritzono hatov,” of his own free will. In exceptional circumstances, a rabbinic court may place extraordinary pressure on a husband until he agrees.
Up through the times of the Talmud, the default Biblical contract was modified in many ways. The ketubah amount was increased, for example. The general impact of these developments was to discourage capricious divorce, to encourage proper behavior during marriage, and to ensure that divorce happened when it was necessary. Nonetheless, divorce still required the consent of the husband but did not require the consent of the wife.
In the tenth century, legislation attributed to Rabbenu Gershom (Gershom ben Judah Me’or ha-Golan, c. 960–1028) forbade Ashkenazi Jewish husband to divorce his wife without her consent. This decree has since been accepted by all of Jewry.
As a result, under contemporary Jewish law divorce requires the consent of both parties. However, because, the wife’s consent is only required Biblically, it is easier to free husbands than wives in cases of get refusal, although in the United States it seems that refusal happens at similar rated for both sexes. Jewish law still imposes obligations of support and sexual satisfaction on the husband exclusively. However, in modern times husbands and wives rarely sue in rabbinic court for the enforcement of marital obligations rather than for divorce.
Is Get Refusal a form of domestic abuse?
Absolutely. Get refusal is often about controlling the life of a spouse, even after the marriage is over. Refusal to grant a Get means that your spouse cannot move on with his or her life or pursue another relationship. Get refusal may be used to extort financial concessions and used as blackmail in custody dispute.
Is Get Refusal only a problem for Orthodox women and men?
No. Get refusal is a domestic abuse issue that exists in every segment of our Jewish community. In Israel, where all marriages and divorces must go through the religious Rabbinical Courts, the rate of Get refusal by both Orthodox and secular men is climbing. A recent study found that one in three women divorcing in Israel feels herself subject to threats of Get refusal and extortion.
Outside of Israel, women can choose to divorce without a Get. However, many nonOrthodox women feel bound by Jewish law to the extent of being unwilling to remarry without a religious divorce, or want the option, for themselves and their children, of remarrying in an Orthodox ceremony.
Are there any proactive measures a woman can take to avoid becoming an Agunah in the event of her marriage’s dissolution?
Currently, the best defense against Get refusal is a Prenuptial Agreement, which can be enforced by civil law. The standard Jewish prenuptial agreement creates a financial obligation that generally ensures that the get will not become a bargaining chip on the unfortunate event of divorce. Signing the prenup is also a moral commitment by both spouses not to refuse a get when the other party declares the marriage irreparably done.
Prenuptial agreements are intended to be binding under both Jewish and secular law, and therefore you should seek both rabbinic and legal advice regarding them. Different jurisdictions may require different legal forms, and the agreement may need to account for other spousal agreements.
Already married? A couple can also sign a Postnup, even after years of marriage.
For more information on the Prenup or Postnup, click here
What can I do if my husband refuses to grant me a Get?
The first step is to ask a Rabbinic authority to approach the husband in a pastoral capacity and impress upon him the importance of closing this chapter of his life in a proper manner. If Get refusal persists, a Bet Din, or Rabbinical Court, should be consulted. You are encouraged to contact the Boston Agunah Task Force to discuss your options in more detail.
Can’t my husband be coerced to grant my Get? Doesn’t Maimonides rule that we can physically force a man to give a Get?
Rabbinic courts over the years have held many different positions as to when a Beit Din can use coercion to obtain a get, and as to the definition of coercion. Regardless, It is illegal for a beit din to use physical coercion, both in Israel and in the diaspora. In Israel, courts have the jurisdiction to exert some force, such as prison sentences or suspension of license. In the diaspora, courts have little ability to use coercion. Often, the best course of action is to use community pressure, and the use of shaming methods through print media and social networking.
For help in this area, please contact ORA or click here.
What is a Seiruv? Can it help me?
A spouse who is summoned to a Bet Din and fails to respond can be issued a “Seiruv,” which states that the spouse is in contempt of the Rabbinical Court. In such a situation, all agree that the spouse can be banned from entering a synagogue (Shulchan Aruch and Rama, Yoreh De’ah 334:11,43). The spouse is being coerced to appear in beit din, not to participate in a get ceremony.
If your spouse is issued a “Seiruv,” the community should respond by withholding any form of participation in Jewish communal functions, refrain from engaging in business with him, circumcising his sons, burying his deceased relatives, and any other sanction which Bet Din wishes.
What can the Jewish community do to help me?
Many Orthodox communities will place social or financial pressure upon a recalcitrant husband get to urge him to divorce his wife. Some communities will refuse to allow him to participate in the life of the synagogue; friends will cut off relations with him; and the members of many communities will refuse to do business with him. Jewish communities publish the names of these men in their newsletters, the local papers, and even on the Internet, guaranteeing that the man’s bad behavior is widely known. Often concerned members of a community will picket outside the home of a recalcitrant husband or call for a boycott of his business or store. These tactics can be very effective.
To contact an organization to help you with Get Refusal, click here
Can a civil court help me?
Even when coercion is mandated, the Mishnah (Gittin 88b) states that it is only valid when done under the auspices of a Jewish (rabbinical) court. If a Bet Din rules that the husband may be coerced to give a get, it is halachically acceptable for a civil court to enforce the Bet din’s ruling. Although the civil court system is implementing the coercion, it is merely ordering the husband to obey the Bet Din. On the other hand, if the judge orders a husband to give a get absent the instructions of a Bet din, the subsequent get is very problematic.
For example, the NY Get Laws are very helpful in obtaining a get from a difficult spouse. The 1983 New York State Get Law (Domestic Relations Law 253) calls for the judge in a civil court to withhold a civil divorce until both parties remove all barriers to remarriage. (i.e., gives a get). Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe, E.H. 4:106) ruled that this law is not considered coercion of the husband to give a get.
No states other than New York and Ontario, Canada currently has get legislation. There is, however, case law in the statutory annotations of many states; this means that in any state, a court may or may not order a husband to give a get, depending on the circumstances of the case. Speak to your lawyer and a competent Beit Din about such possibilities.
For information on Get laws in England, Scotland, and Wales, click here
For information on Canada Get laws, click here
Are there any circumstances in which a Bet Din can annul a marriage without the participation of a recalcitrant spouse?
There is a Talmudic principle which can be used by a Beit Din to annul a marriage in a narrow set of cases, so that no Get is needed and a woman can remarry under Jewish law. Get refusal is unfortunately not one of those cases. Very possibly this is because in Talmudic times it was possible to use physical coercion in such cases, and this was deemed preferable to annulment. Regardless, Orthodox batei din universally reject its direct application to get-refusal today. The Conservative movement does annul marriages in get-refusal cases, but these annulments are not recognized by Orthodox batei din.
There are several other legal means by which a Beit Din may rule that a get is unnecessary. “Kiddushei Taut, or mistaken marriage,” for example, is a process by which a marriage can be annulled if it was contracted based on false pretenses. Such methods are generally used only in extraordinary cases, and you must consult a competent Beit Din or organization to see whether there is a chance that they apply to your case.
What additional power does a Rabbinical Court have in Israel?
In 1995, The Knesset passed a law known as “The Sanctions Law.” According to “The Sanctions Law” not only can the recalcitrant husband be put in jail, but the following list of rights can be suspended: travel outside of Israel; obtaining, holding or renewing an Israeli passport; receiving, holding or renewing an Israeli driver’s license; being elected or holding public office; engaging in an occupation or running a business that requires a license or permit; opening or holding a bank account; and, if he is a prisoner, preventing him from wandering freely, enjoying leave privileges or early release. An amendment (approved in 2000) adds that it is possible to keep a recalcitrant husband in solitary confinement.
I was married in a civil ceremony only. Now my husband refuses to grant my Get. Can I remarry without one?
You may be able to. The overwhelming majority of Halachic authorities believe that civil marriages are not halachically binding. They include Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (Teshuvot Achiezer 4:50), Rav David Tzvi Hoffman (Teshuvot Melameid Leho’il 3:20), Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (Teshuvot Seridei Eish 3:22), Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog (Teshuvot Heichal Yitzchak, E.H. 2:30-31), Rav Yaakov Breisch (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 1:1), Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 3:100) and Dayan Y.Y. Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 3:125). However, a couple that lived together as husband and wife in a Jewish community may be considered halakhically married even if they had only a civil ceremony.
In practice, couples are encouraged to try to arrange a get, if at all possible, even if only a civil ceremony took place. Nevertheless, many Rabbinical Courts often permit a woman married only in a civil ceremony to remarry without a get.
What if my wife refuses to accept a Get?
A man cannot enter into a second marriage until his wife has accepted the Get from him. In extreme circumstances, a rabbinic court may find grounds for allowing the remarriage. When this exception is made, the husband must sign a Get and leave it with the Bet Din for delivery to his former wife, if she changes her mind. This is to avoid a situation where one spouse can remarry while the other is still bound by the marriage.
If you got married in Israel, or if you plan to return to Israel, please contact our Israel Get consultant, Dr. Rachel Levmore. If you live outside of Israel, please contact Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a member of the Boston Rabbinical Court. Questions will be answered within 24 hours.