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
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.
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.
Nowadays, the problem is neither lost nor “conscientiously objecting” husbands. The usual case of igun in the modern world comes from husbands who withhold a gett as a bargaining chip for money or custody, or merely as a spiteful act of retaliation or control. That exploitation of this type occurs frequently nowadays but was virtually non-existent in the past speaks to drastic changes in society.