Agunot: A Different Kind of Hostage

Divorce is meant to take care of the wife. But occasionally, a husband will manipulate the system.

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The following article is excerpted from "A Different Kind of Hostage," originally published in Moment magazine. Reprinted here with permission from the estate of Robert Gordis.

The most agonizing moral challenge confronting Jewish law in modern times is nearly 2,000 years old. It is the plight of the agunah, "the chained wife," which has troubled Jews through the centuries. No one who has read Chaim Grade's powerful novel The Agunah will soon forget its tragic heroine, whose husband has left her and refuses to give her a get (Jewish divorce), so that she can never remarry.divorce quiz 

A Problem Since Biblical Times

Actually, the novel describes only one of several categories of agunah. Fundamentally, the pathetic situation of these women stems from the fact that the rabbinic interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 places the initiative for the issuance of a get solely in the hands of the husband. The tragedy has been immeasurably compounded in modern times by the erosion of authority in the Jewish community, so that the community itself is now powerless to compel the husband's obedience.

The problem has a long and painful history. The ancient and medieval rabbis were highly sensitive to the woman's undeserved suffering and sought every conceivable method of freeing the agunah from her chains. Thus, the Talmud went so far as to rule that if the woman herself had evidence that her husband had died, her unsubstantiated testimony would be acceptable and she would be declared a widow, free to remarry.

The radical character of this decision becomes clear if it is recalled that this ruling sets aside three fundamental principles of halakhah [Jewish law]--first, the rabbinic rule that a woman is ineligible to testify as a witness; second, the biblical law that two witnesses are required to establish valid evidence; third, the rabbinic principle "adam karov etzel atzmo"--"every person is close and partial to himself"--and, therefore, his testimony on a case in which he is involved is invalid. Nonetheless, the rabbis accepted the woman's sole testimony as a witness.

Furthermore, the rabbis in medieval and modern times left no stone unturned in searching for the missing husband and in the effort to persuade him to issue a Jewish divorce to his abandoned wife.

It is clear from the sources that customary law, as practiced over a period of 10 centuries in Egypt and Palestine, employed far-reaching procedures to compensate for the women's legal inability to dissolve a marriage. These provisions dealt not only with the problem of abandonment; they also made it possible for the woman to demand and receive a divorce when she found her marriage intolerable. In fact, documents have survived that indicate that in some cases it was sufficient for the wife to come to the court and declare, "Lo erhemeh"--"I do not love him"--in order for the judges to compel the husband to issue a divorce.

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Dr. Robert Gordis (1908-1992) taught for over half a century at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as Professor of Bible and Rapoport Professor in the Philosophies of Religion. He served as a congregational rabbi and as editor of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal. Among his many books are Love and Sex and Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law.