Potential Solutions to the Agunah Problem

Orthodox and Conservative rabbis have worked to create solutions within the Jewish framework, including prenuptial agreements and retroactive annulment.

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As its name implies, there is a second New York State Get Law, which is an amendment to the1992 Equitable Distribution Law, governing property settlements in divorce proceedings. In essence, it allows the presiding judge to factor in to the property settlement whether the husband issued his wife a get.

Rabbis Suggest Creative Solutions

The agunah problem is far more difficult to solve in the United States, where divorcing parties are not automatically subjected to a beit din's jurisdiction. According to "Jewish Law Watch," the biannual publication of the Center of Women in Jewish Law (part of The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, located in Jerusalem), actual agunot cases have languished for years in both Israel and America without resolution.

While this painful problem lacks a uniform solution, rabbis from both Orthodox and Conservative Judaism have found creative means within a halakhic framework to extricate women in agunah.

For instance, once a civil divorce has been obtained, the Beit Din Zedek LiBaiot Agunot, spearheaded by Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, takes action to free an agunah. Morgenstern, a Torah scholar and posek (judge) who received ordination from Torah Vada'at and Feinstein, has ruled: "When all other methods have failed, we do not extort a woman, or cause her to live in celibacy or childlessness because her vindictive spouse has decided to withhold divorce. We simply say: At the time of the marriage, she didn't know what a sadist this man has proven himself to be. Therefore, her agreeing to marry him is a mistake."

His solution comes from the notion that marriage is a contract and when one side falsifies the terms (by being a secret sadist), then the marriage was invalid to begin with and may be annulled by a rabbi. This way, says Morgenstern, the woman does not have to pay any exorbitant bribes or track him down and beg him.

Morgenstern's court, together with his colleague Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, have freed 300 agunot in what he calls "a simple, humane, and halakhic way." He adds, "The worst lock of all is the frumkeit [excessive religiosity] lock... who are programmed to think it is okay to keep an agunah locked up because of their own excessive piety."

According to Morgenstern, the heter (permission) key unlocks her, simply by doing what other great rabbis of our past have done: using rabbinical power to change even a divine command if it will prevent suffering and cure injustice.

Rabbinical authorities have denounced Morgenstern and Rackman's rulings and only one of the women freed by Morgenstern's court is free to remarry in Israel. Rivka Haut, an Orthodox feminist and activist for agunot, even expressed that the Morgenstern/Rackman beit din made the situation worse because not even within Orthodoxy will it be taken for granted that a divorced woman really is divorced and able to remarry. The critics maintain that the Beit Din Zedek LiBaiot Agunot will annul marriages for reasons that are far beyond what the halakhah allows for.

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Soriya Daniels

Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.