Contemporary Activism to Save Agunot

An activist for agunot traces her development from demonstrator to promoter of prenuptial agreements that help protect women in the event of a divorce.

The Jewish tradition gives only men the power to grant a divorce. When the husband refuses to give his wife a get, or Jewish bill of divorce, she is unable to remarry. Solutions for these agunot, or deserted women, range from the Reform movement, which does not require a Jewish divorce; to the Reconstructionist movement, whose beit dins (courts) permit a woman to remarry even if her husband does not grant a get; to the Conservative and Orthodox movements, who are instituting prenuptial agreements that use financial incentives to encourage a husband to give a get of his own free will when the marriage is over.

A Demonstration in Borough Park

There was already a knot of people huddled at the demonstration on the corner of 15th Avenue and 46th Street in Borough Park, Brooklyn, by the time we arrived. It was sunny, 20 degrees below zero. broken chains

The crowd grew quickly, and we moved out from 15th Avenue to the courtyard of a dirty grey apartment building. A woman out front took the megaphone and began her admonishment, “Avraham Zvi Silverstein is in contempt of Jewish court. He refuses to give his wife a get (bill of divorce). He is an abomination amongst the people of Israel. The beit din (Jewish court) has asked us to do everything we can to help this woman. He is a shame to the whole community!”

The demonstrators trudged around the courtyard under this man’s apartment, chanting “Avraham Zvi Silverstein, give your wife a get!” “Free Esther Silverstein!” Suddenly, a window in the target apartment shot up, a male head appeared, snapped a picture, and disappeared. It was the only time we raised a response from the object of this exercise.

The megaphone blared again, pointing its nose right into the window of the offending apartment, “We demand a get for Esther and all the agunot like her! We want the beit dins to help women to get their gets, to examine the system that imprisons so many women in bad marriages! Set the agunot free!”

Then Esther came to the phone, a young woman with a beret over her wig, and very plain: “I just want to ask Avraham Zvi to let me go, I want to lead a normal life…” she started to cry and the demonstrators supported her.

A black-garbed man walking past paused, listened, and started yelling, “She’s just a feminist, that lady with the megaphone, she doesn’t care about Jewish law, just likes to make trouble! Why does Borough Park need a demonstration?”

But other, equally black-garbed men shouted him down, “What’s this got to do with feminism? Who said she was a feminist? Esther Silverstein’s husband won’t give her a get and the beit din told her friends to help her out; it’s a mitzvah [commandment]!” While they gesticulated and raised their voices at each other, we moved on. All through Borough Park we walked, handing out leaflets, slipping them onto cars and into mailboxes, chanting our refrain, “Avraham Zvi Silverstein, give your wife a get!”

When we reached 13th Avenue, the shopping mecca of Diaspora Jewry, our numbers had swelled. Mr. Silverstein would have his name defamed before the entire Sunday shopping crowd.” You know what the Satmar Hasidim do with these men?” one bystander said to me. “They take him to a cemetery and break his bones. Why don’t you do that?” Another woman asked, “And how long has Esther been waiting for her get?” When I told her it was five years, she snorted, “That’s nothing, I’ve been chained to my ex for 15 years!”

Our final destination was the shul [synagogue] where Mr. Silverstein usually came for Afternoon Prayers. By then, every child in Borough Park had a leaflet to swap with friends, and the Yiddish chatter grew loud in our wake. The streets were littered with pictures of Avraham Zvi’s stiff mustachioed face. Our petition had hundreds of signatures on it.

Esther was the last to sign. A rotund, long-coated Hasid hovered around her as the demonstration broke up.

“Why don’t you call me any more?” he asked her in his singsong Yiddish accent.

“You know,” she answered, “the telephone rings at both ends.”

How long will she wait? I wondered, as I took the subway home.

Moving from Demonstrations to Legal Innovation

The issue of the agunah, the woman whose husband could not, or would not, give his wife a get, consumed my young single life. I considered this cause an issue of civil rights, balancing the blatant asymmetry in power between the woman and man in Jewish family law. Only the man could perform the indispensable act to end a Jewish marriage, namely handing his wife a get, or asking his agent to do so. If he chose to withhold the get, a woman could be “chained” indefinitely, unable to remarry.

But much more importantly, a woman who has not yet received her get and lives with another man is considered an adulteress; any child born of the adulterous union is a mamzer. A mamzer may not marry anyone except another mamzer or a convert, and the status of mamzer lasts for 10 generations (some people hold forever). In contrast, if a man fails to give a get to his former wife, and then enters into a second relationship, he has violated no biblical prohibition. He violates the prohibition of the Ashkenazi (European) rabbis against bigamy, but children of the second relationship will in no way be tainted. They are free to marry whomever they wish.

My passion about the agunah issue coincided with a rising interest in the topic worldwide and a burgeoning number of organizations to which I could attach myself. I started by fighting on behalf of individual agunot, organizing freedom battles one by one. Once a woman had a declaration from the beit din that her husband was in contempt of Jewish court, we planned strategies to humiliate and pressure him in places where he was most vulnerable. These included sit-ins at the husband’s business; having him publicly thrown out of synagogue; picketing his home. But we never resorted to violence. I felt like I was fighting against the Jewish gender apartheid.

But, I found, fighting for individual agunot was inadequate. We had to root out the cause of the problem; put more balance in the unbalanced state of Jewish family law. Initially, I was part of the founding committee of the International Coalition for Aguna Rights, whose aim was to bring the plight of the agunah to the front of the Jewish communal agenda, to agitate the rabbis in all countries for change, to encourage governments to enact laws to pressure recalcitrant husbands. But this became too large, slow, and unwieldy for my tastes. I was young and could not see how interminable committee meetings would lead rabbis to bend their understandings of the law, not to mention governments.

Around this time, there was a movement to introduce a special kind of prenuptial agreement as a mandatory part of a Jewish marriage. The agreement was an ingenious idea that would put financial pressure on the husband to divorce his wife after the marriage had broken down, but would not violate the law requiring that the man give the get “of his own free will.”

This idea gained the approval of prominent rabbis, and, unlike some other “solutions” to the problem, looked like it just might work. The agunah problem is unique in Jewish law in that rabbis are deeply afraid of the consequences of making the wrong legal decision–who wants to be the cause of a generation of mamzers? Any solution had to have the approbation of many prominent rabbis and lay people. In kashrut [Jewish dietary laws], for example, there can be a plethora of answers to complex meat vs. milk questions, because a person is answerable only to her Maker if she eats the wrong food. But if you follow the minority opinion of a creative rabbi in matters of get and agunah, you might end up with children whose marriage opportunities are severely limited.

As a result of this conundrum, issues of Jewish family law require a very high degree of consensus, which means change is very difficult to effectuate. And it looked like the prenuptial agreement was gaining that high, majority ground. When I saw the tipping point coming, I decided that this was my chance to jump in. A friend urged me to establish an organization to promote the prenuptial agreement, and we found a welcoming home at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

I wanted it to sound optimistic, so I called it the Wedding Resource Center (WRC). Wasn’t I, by freeing chained women, allowing more Jewish weddings to come into the world? And we renamed the prenuptial agreement the Marriage Protection Agreement (MPA), because we weren’t interested in dividing the material spoil after divorce, but rather, in protecting the precious institution of the Jewish marriage.

Our aim at the WRC was to ensure that before every wedding, the couple signed a MPA. Even better, we wanted to convince rabbis that they should not marry anyone without ensuring they had signed a MPA.

I talked and wrote about MPAs everywhere I could, but the best place was brides’ classes. But how could I possibly convince a starry-eyed engaged girl to sign an agreement about divorce just weeks before the big day? I used many arguments. Firstly, I pointed out, the ketubah [marriage contract] that many couples read under the huppah [marriage canopy] is a similar agreement, describing what financial provisions the husband promises in the event of divorce or widowhood, and no one balks at that! Secondly, each of us has a responsibility to our community. Just as on Yom Kippur we confess to sins we would never commit, acknowledging our responsibility for our fellow sinners, so too here with the MPA. If all marrying couples sign the agreement as a matter of course, no one will feel uncomfortable asking his or her spouse to do so, and the woman who will need it one day (and no one knows who that might be) will have it.

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