Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Agunah Dilemma, #3

One theme of the Agunah Summit was the need for a “systemic solution”.  However, different speakers used the term to mean and exclude different things, and this led to frequent and unfortunate misunderstandings and failures of communication.  I will therefore try here to develop a rigorous analysis of the term.

Systemic can mean:

  1. Comprehensive (antonym “ad hoc”)
  2. Internal (antonym “external”)
  3. Automatic (antonym “dependent”)

These three translations generate five specific uses:

a)     internal to the Halakhic system, rather than reliant on external forces, such as the secular courts

b)    capable of resolving all cases

c)     capable of resolving all cases without requiring any rabbi to  exercise any form of halakhic discretion

d)    capable of resolving all cases without requiring specific men or women to exercise any form of discretion

e)     capable of resolving all cases without requiring any human being, rabbi or otherwise, to exercise any form of discretion

Each of these definitions likely represents a distinct values position.  For example:

a)     the desire for an “internal solution” may stem from a concern for the moral reputation of Halakhah, and lead someone to prefer such a solution even if it is less effective than a solution that involves extrahalakhic forces or agencies;

b)    the desire for a comprehensive solution may reflect a belief that ad hoc solutions cannot be relied upon in advance, and so reliance on such solutions will leave women vulnerable to get-refusal blackmail or anxiety;

c)     the desire for a solution not dependent on rabbinic discretion may reflect a lack of trust that the rabbinic court system will properly use any new powers it might be given, or a general aversion to increasing rabbinic power;

d)    the desire for a solution not dependent on the discretion of non-rabbis may reflect a lack of trust that couples will take proper prudential measures before marriage, or a sense that accepting such a solution in principle will in practice enable rabbis to avoid their responsibility to fix the matter.

e)     The desire for a solution independent of any human discretion may reflect either a combination of c) and d) or else a sense that vulnerable people should not, if possible, be required to put their trust in others.

Furthermore, the contemporary agunah issue (see also the four manifestations discussed last post) affects three distinct groups of women:

1)       Women who are currently in the midst of or have completed civil divorce proceedings

2)       Women who are currently married but not considering divorce

3)       Women who are not currently married.

A solution may be comprehensive for one or two but not all three of these groups.  For example:

prenuptial agreements only help group 3;

postnuptial agreements might extend a similar solution to group 2;

but any solution requiring the husband to voluntarily accept new obligations cannot help group 1.

Furthermore, some solutions may work comprehensively, internally, or automatically in Israel but not in the United States, or vice versa.  More on that in a forthcoming installment.


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Dean, The Center for Modern Torah Leadership


Leave a comment

Filed under Beit Din, Jewish divorce, Jewish Values, marriages

The Contemporary Agunah

Popular discourse identifies the contemporary agunah as the “mesurevet get”, the woman who wants a Jewish divorce but whose husband refuses to grant her one.  This definition is simultaneously too broad and too narrow.  It is too broad because it fails to account for the differing circumstances and motivations for a husband’s refusal, and it is too narrow because it excludes circumstances in which everyone agrees the divorce is still legitimately in process. 

I therefore seek to distinguish and define at least four separate categories of ‘contemporary agunot”.


  1. Women (in America) whose civil divorce is complete, or (in Israel) where a court agrees that good-faith negotiations over issues other than the get have ended.
  2. Women who remain in marriages because they fear that seeking divorce will not free them from an undesirable marriage, but rather lock them into a dead marriage.
  3. Women who are in the midst of divorce negotiations and are explicitly told that they must make concessions in order to receive the get.
  4. Women who are in the midst of divorce negotiations and worry that the husband may use get-refusal to demand concessions, even though he has never threatened this.

Values Approaches:

  1. Halakhic marriage is formally a contractual relationship that presumes, or at least makes considerable room for, a significantly integrated financial life and a joint endeavor to properly raise children.  These aspects of marriage, perhaps even more so than the intimate emotional and physical elements of the relationship, necessitate the formalization of its ending.

It is reasonable to argue that each spouse has a principled right to hold the other spouse in the relationship until a good faith effort has been made to resolve financial and custody issues.

It is also reasonable to argue that neither party should have a right to hold the other’s future hostage even if negotiations in good faith do not lead to what he or she thinks is a reasonable outcome.

  1. A prominent dayyan once argued to me – and I suspect that his position was not idiosyncratic among his colleagues – that diminishing the risk of get-refusal would generate an unfortunate rise in divorces, as women would then choose to exit marriages that could, with work, be salvaged.  In my humble opinion, this is a perversion of Jewish values that needs to be named and fought vigorously.  What kind of marriage can be sustained by the fear that one’s spouse would rather hold you prisoner than allow you to leave?  Is it not likely that many of the marriages thus sustained will be heavily abusive?  The legitimate goal of improving marriage stability and lowering the divorce rate can and must be met without making marriage a prison and turning daughters of Israel into slaves and blackmail victims.
  2. Here significant subtlety is necessary.  A reasonable person might hold the opinion that the secular divorce laws in a particular jurisdiction are biased against husbands, whether in the realm of custody or of property of division.  (One way to reach this conclusion is by assuming that wives halakhically are presumptively entitled to no more than the amount of their ketubah; those who properly wish to use beit din for the financial aspects of divorce should investigate the rulings of particular batei din in this regard.)

Furthermore, even in the most theoretically just system there will be cases where injustice seems the likely outcome, as for example when one side is financially desperate and therefore under extreme pressure to settle.

Under each of these circumstances, there is a strong temptation to see get-refusal as a legitimate means of obtaining justice.  It is therefore critically important to understand that this argument is dangerously wrongheaded, and why.  Here’s why.

It is obviously wrong to use the get to extort money unjustly.  But where the divorce is being litigated in civil court (and in the United States the courts will not recognize the decisions of arbitration panels with regard to custody, so all custody disputes must be litigated in civil court), the beit din will not have the capacity to determine whether the get is being used to obtain rather than to pervert justice.  A beit din has no subpoena power, and no access to court records, and therefore cannot adequately investigate claims of hidden bank accounts, abuse, and the like.  Every get-refusing husband will therefore claim that he only seeking to prevent an unjust court ruling, and the beit din will be powerless to distinguish the extortionists from the genuine among them.  So we must use the classic rabbinic mechanism of “lo plug” – we do not make exceptions when doing so will undermine the rule.

  1. No negotiations should take place in the shadow of one party’s capacity to torture the other with impunity and for any reason.  This seems to me self-evident.


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Dean, The Center for Modern Torah Leadership


Leave a comment

Filed under Beit Din, Jewish divorce, Jewish Values, marriages

The Agunah Dilemma #1

I was honored last month to be a participant in the Tikvah/JOFA Agunah Summit.  It was a powerful experience, and has caused me much and ongoing rethinking.  That rethinking was certainly a goal of the summit, and much has been written optimistically about other outcomes. 

But I also felt that much of what was said and happened at the Summit evidenced deep confusion about the nature of the challenge and about the ways in which proposed solutions would work in practice, and that this confusion often made it difficult even to have serious conversations, let alone to agree on action steps.  I am accordingly starting this week a series of articles intended to describe the agunah issue as clearly as possible, in the hope that this will enable new collaborations and creativity.  The first of the series follows below, and I hope others will follow on a roughly weekly basis.

1)  Who is an Agunah?

A) The “Classic” Agunah: Definition and History

a. Definition:

In popular discourse, the classic agunah is a woman whose husband has disappeared and may or may not be dead.  The Rabbis relaxed their usual evidentiary standards and allowed her to remarry on the basis of normally invalid testimony or circumstantial evidence of death.  However, fearing fraud, they also imposed severe penalties if the husband eventually turned up alive. 


Thousands and thousands of responsa through the centuries address cases of disappeared husbands.  These responsa generally reflect the commonsense understanding of the Talmud, namely that formal rules of evidence should not prevent a widow from remarrying, but that remarriage should be permitted only when the husband’s death can genuinely be seen as proven. 

Rabbi Yoel Sirkes was among the most eloquent about the religious obligation to allow such women to remarry.  He applied to them a midrashic reading of a verse from Kohelet “And I have seen the tears of the oppressed…and power flows from the hands of their oppressors – these are the Sanhedrin”, which originally was said regarding mamzerim, and he gave the task of freeing agunot Redemptive significance.  But his responsum addresses a case, as he acknowledges in a coda, where the husband turned up alive, happily before the putative widow remarried.

The modern rabbinate has generally been admirably successful and humane in dealing with such cases.  Under the leadership of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the Israeli rabbinate has resolved all cases associated with the 1973 war, and more recently, the RCA Beit Din led a consortium of rabbis in resolving all cases associated with the 9/11 attacks.  These decisions included bold and innovative consideration of forms of evidence that had not previously been accepted by rabbinic courts, such as DNA tests.

It is important to realize that popular discourse leaves out several other Talmudic cases that may have great contemporary significance.

b. Definition:

The Talmud uses the term igguna to refer to a woman whose husband lives apart from her but is unable to obtain an effective divorce from him.  In that case as well the Rabbis relaxed evidentiary standards to make long-distance delivery of an effective get practical. 


The Talmudic method for enabling long-distance divorce has been effective ever since.

c. Definition:

Without using the term “igguna”, the Talmud records several cases in which the Rabbis used extraordinary legal means to ensure that husbands could never deliberately place wives in doubt of whether they had been divorced. 


Divorce in Talmudic times seems to have occurred fairly often without formal court oversight, with the husband privately hiring a scribe and delivering the document in person or by agent.  In post-Talmudic halakhah, however, the husband almost invariably uses a court scribe and court agents, and delivery as well takes place in the presence of a court.  Court practice is constructed so as to ensure that the divorce is proof against any subsequent attack or allegation. 

The cases mentioned by the Talmud therefore occur nowadays only when they are deliberately constructed by courts.  For example, one such case was used to allow a remarried woman to remain with her second husband, when, to everyone’s shock, her first husband turned up alive many years after the Holocaust and despite eyewitness testimony of his certain death.

d. Definition:

Again without specifically using the term “igguna”, the Talmud records several cases in which the Rabbis uses extraordinary legal means to release women from marriages they had entered into with defective consent, for example if their genuine consent was obtained in circumstances of coercion. 


I am not currently aware of any post-Talmudic cases in which this precedent has been applied.

Aryeh Klapper

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized