Egalitarianism Confronts Kiddushin

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The more deeply we delved, the more we found the institution of kiddushin problematic. Even as we attempted to understand kiddushin in terms of holiness and mutuality, we could not ignore the halakhic consequences that remain all too real in our day--personified by the problem of the agunah, a woman who cannot remarry because her husband cannot or will not give her a get, a bill of divorcement.

The thinking of Rivka Haut, a prominent and courageous Orthodox activist for the rights of agunot, was especially persuasive as we refined our picture of kiddushin. Haut does not actually propose changes to the marriage ceremony. But her clear depiction of gerushin [divorce proceedings] as a kind of mirror image of the marriage ceremony sheds light on the nature of the acquisition masked by the language of holiness in kiddushin (Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994).

The counter-formula to consecration (harei at mekudeshet li) is harei at muteret l'koi adam, "Behold, you are permitted to any man." This parallelism left us unconvinced by arguments that "unilaterally set aside" is an obsolete or incidental meaning of kiddushin, too far removed from its origins to be a problem. And no cosmetic alterations to kiddushin alter the utter passivity of the woman receiving a get. The divorce ceremony, and the reality of thousands of women who are kept from remarriage by estranged husbands who cannot or will not grant a divorce, informed our perception of a system of kiddushin-gerushin in need of redemption.

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Cheryl Beckerman is a writer and editor living in Jerusalem with her husband, daughter, and son.