This post has been translated from Hebrew to English by Bracha Jaffe.
Shabbat afternoon between the afternoon and evening prayers is a prime time in the life of a community. Some people attend a halakha or daf yomi shiur (class) while others opt to take an afternoon walk, snooze in the pews, or read a chapter in their current novel of choice. Two weeks ago at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) – The Bayit — I introduced something completely new and different.
A week before the traditional Purim shpiel (play) was set to take the stage, the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale turned the synagogue into a theater for a wholly other purpose… a mock trial!
During “prime time,” a group of congregants staged a mock trial to examine the efficacy of the halakhic prenuptial agreement in a court of law. John and Jane Doe had signed a prenup before their wedding, but unfortunately their relationship deteriorated after the wedding. Jane requested an end to the marriage, and that is how they found themselves in court. Jane’s lawyer presented the arguments in favor of using the prenuptial agreement to honor Jane’s request, showing why it should be upheld — that both parties signed of sound mind and understanding the implications of the agreement, and that the financial responsibility assessed therein did not constitute a coercion to give the get. On the other side, John’s lawyer argued against upholding the prenuptial agreement, suggesting that the couple did not truly understand what they were signing, and that they were not really given a choice. John’s lawyer also argued that the financial assessment constituted a fine and a pressure that created a “forced get,” making the prenup halakhically problematic.
The court’s verdict — by a ruling of two judges against one — was that the prenuptial agreement is actionable and binding upon both parties. Thus, the court ordered that John begin to pay Jane $150 per day retroactive to their time of their separation a few months earlier. The judge who objected to the prenup taught us about another solution which has yet to be applied in the Orthodox world, conditional kiddushin, which automatically cancels the marriage if and when the necessary conditions of marriage are no longer being met.
Today’s world is not what it once was. Women vote. Women learn Torah. Women are even ordained to be rabbis. But there are still women who are chained to their husbands and victims of “get refusal.” The Orthodox world has yet to find a solution to the asymmetry in the giving and receiving of the get between husband and wife. There are still those in the Orthodox world who see the get as a bargaining chip and use it as a bullying tactic against the other side.
One approach to eradicating this very painful phenomenon of agunot is signing halakhic prenuptial agreements. The couple signs the prenup before, or on, the wedding day, when their feelings of love are very strong. The prenup capitalizes on this prime moment when positive, cooperative feelings are strongest, and introduces and makes explicit the understanding that if (God forbid) this love should end, the recorded memory of good intentions will allow the couple to separate in an honorable and respectful manner.
HIR has planned a post-nup party to be held on Sunday, March 30. Every married member of the congregation has received an invitation and the goal is for all married members of the synagogue to participate. Anyone who did not sign a prenup before their wedding will be able to sign a reciprocal postnup in its place. Single congregants and married couples who have signed a prenup are encouraged to attend to partake in the celebration and show their support for this practice. By seeking one hundred percent participation, we aim to make prenuptial agreements an accepted part of the Jewish marriage ceremony in our synagogue and beyond.
My fervent hope is that the upcoming postnup party will allow all synagogue members to play an active role in this movement to end the use of the get as an aggressive and combative halakhic tool. Further, I hope that other synagogues will (as some around the country already have) host such events to encourage the signing of the postnup, and will take steps to educate and empower all of their members to sign either a prenup or a postnup. May we see the day where this critical action step joins with others to bring an end to the problem of agunot in our community.
I want to especially thank Rabanit Michal Tickotchinski who was part of a mock trial in Israel and encouraged us to try this at The Bayit, and of course, all of the actors, members of HIR, who performed with passion and brilliance:
- James Lapin (John Doe)
- Ann Lapin (Jane Doe)
- Mia Padwa (Jane’s lawyer)
- Elliot Rabin (John’s lawyer)
- Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rabbi Jeff Fox, Ariel Freidenberg JD (the judges)
This piece was submitted on Friday, January 31, 2014. The event took place on Sunday, January 26.
When a couple gets divorced, the husband must provide the wife with a get (Jewish writ of divorce). If he refuses to grant her this document, she remains “chained” to the marriage, unable to re-marry. A woman in this situation is called an agunah.
Something incredible happened last Sunday night.
Three Modern Orthodox synagogues in St. Louis– Bais Abraham Congregation, Young Israel of St. Louis, and Nusach Hari-B’nai Zion– joined together to sponsor an event to raise awareness about the plight of agunot and to encourage couples to sign the halakhic postnuptial agreement. Featuring keynote speaker Rabbi Yona Reiss, Av Beit Din (Head of the Rabbinic Court) of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and former director of the Rabbinical Council of America, the event highlighted the abuse suffered by women in the Orthodox community when their husbands refuse to give them a get, whether to use it as leverage in the divorce proceedings or merely as a conduit to exert power.
On Sunday we came together as a community. We recognized a communal problem. And we worked together for a communal solution.
The halakhic prenuptial agreement – or postnuptial agreement, for those like myself who were already married without signing the prenuptial agreement – is currently the best solution to prevent future agunot. The agreement outlines that in the event of a divorce, the couple agrees to resolve any disputes related to the get before the religious court (in our case, the Beth Din Zedek Ecclesiastical Judicature of the Chicago Rabbinical Council) and that the husband obligates himself to support his wife in the amount of $150 per day, adjusted for inflation, from the time that they cease to live together as husband and wife for as long as they remain religiously married.
Thirty-one couples signed the postnup document on Sunday night, and another twelve who were unable to attend the event committed to signing the document.
Keren and Gabe Douek will be married for ten years this August. They attended the event with their four-year-old son Joel and two-month-old son Oliver in tow. “It is so painful to read stories of husbands abusing their wives and keeping this last element of control over them by refusing to give the get,” Keren said. “The postnup is a concrete step we can take towards a real solution, instead of just sharing an article on Facebook. I’d like to believe that I would never need my postnup, but Gabe and I felt very strongly that signing one is the right thing to do.”
Annabelle and Ken Chapel also signed the document. “I’m very fortunate. I’m going to be married sixty years,” said Annabelle. “But there are women who are not so fortunate and it is not fair that they are held hostage. This is a way of showing solidarity.”
Though there are eighty-six additional individuals who now have extra legal protection in their marriage, it is really all of our marriages that are now stronger and, indeed, our entire community that benefits. Together we took a stand. Together we shifted the communal norm. Together we declared that we refuse to allow our rituals of marriage and divorce to become a mechanism for manipulation.
Together we said that even one agunah is one too many.
I invite you to join us.
Click here for information about halakhic prenuptial agreements and various resources for agunot.
In the wake of the current discussion of the Gital Dodelson case (about which I know nothing more than what has been written in the New York Post), I thought I would take the opportunity to discuss the origins of the agunah/mesorevet gett problem in our time as I understand them.
Divorce in Jewish law, like marriage, is a private ceremony that works along the model of contracts. Whatever the benefits of such a system may be, the Achilles heel has always been the possibility of igun. In order for a couple to be divorced a man is required to give his wife a gett, so if the man is unavailable or unwilling to do so, this leaves a woman stranded as married yet not married—chained to a dead marriage and a lost or recalcitrant husband, unable to move forward with her life.
Igun Then and Now
Through various epochs of Jewish history, the problem of women stuck in dead marriages has expressed itself in different ways. Throughout most of history, the agunah problem was minor and usually involved husbands who were lost in battle or at sea, or they died on business trips. In the period before long distance communication was a reality and documentation of travelers and deaths was haphazard and imprecise at best, the possibility that a woman’s husband could die on a trip and she never know about it was a serious one. In the Geonic period, there was a small but real attrition to Islam, where, once converted, the men would not participate in a Jewish religious divorce. Continue reading