Painting by Cricket Diane C Phillips
The recent Air France plane crash has halakhic consequences for one women whose husband was on the flight. While she and her family had a natural reaction to plan a memorial ceremony after the coast guard began finding the awful remains of the plane and its passengers, the Rabbis were debating her status as a married woman, an agunah, or a widow.
If a woman's husband disappears, she must remain in limbo, awaiting the facts of his absence. The talmud says, if a man drowns in a Yam Shayin lo sof, a sea that has no end (a very large one), then the Rabbis free her on the assumption that we have enough (if not 100%) proof that he died.
I don't want to add my own comments today, for this issue feels like a Sea of tears with no end, for the widow, for agunot of all types of cases, and for mesoravot get.
I do have to say the comments on this recent article
intrigued me. While I disagreed with a few, overall I was glad to see a civil public debate on the topic.
I recently attended the conference on Halakhic Prenups, mentioned in this article. I must say there were a lot of fascinating details, that differ from the RCA agreement, which I had not been aware of. Here are just a few tidbits.
1) The prenup is entirely egalitarian. Both the wife and husband-to-be sign this document promising to pay each other a certain amount of increased food stipend if either side is recalcitrant (meaning the husband refuses to give a get or the wife refuses to accept or either side doesn't show up for their court date. )
2) The Israeli prenup builds in a period of reconciliation. During the 6 month waiting period, which precedes the requirement to pay each other the sum mentioned above, either side can request marriage counseling, with either a psychologist or a rabbinic figure. The second person (usually the one who sued for divorce) must attend three sessions in order to maintain their right to the sum at the six month point.
I learned a lot at this training conference and hopefully will share some more details in further posts.
The Gemarah on daf 3a (yes we are still on daf 3 in my Iyun class) describes a takana enacted to solve the problem of Tznuot and Prutzot- the modest and the brazen or lascivious.
The problem at hand is as follows: if a man writes a conditional divorce “If I don’t come home in a year, you are divorced,” the woman waiting at home may not know whether she is in fact divorced. If he chose not to come home at the end of the year, then she is in fact divorced because the condition was fulfilled purposely by the husband. But if some accidental circumstances forced the husband not to return, then she is still married because the condition was not fulfilled by the husband, but rather by the an outside force (let us call it an act of God.)
According to Rashi the modest/meek woman takes this lack of information and never remarries rendering herself an aguna, while a brazen woman fills the void with a new husband and may unwittingly give birth to Mamzerim (bastard children) if she in fact is officially still married. For both personality types the problem is the lack of information that allows these women to create ill consequences for themselves, which the takana can solve by pronouncing her divorced in any event no matter why the husband didn’t return.
Tosfot has a bit of a different read. The problem is not lack of information but the women themselves are problematic, each personality type with her own machinations. The modest woman, says Tosfot, really can get married because statistically it is unlikely that her husband was held up by circumstances and so she is halakhicly allowed to remarry (though I’m not sure whose doing their statistics). She with her own personal stringencies refuses to except the halakhic statisticians’ pronouncement and therefore she creates her own igun. The Perutza on the other hand knows for a fact that an accident of fate has held her husband up in some foreign land- only she doesn’t tell anyone. She takes advantage of the same statistics proffered to the modest woman and tells the world she is remarrying because her husband isn’t returning and the divorce took affect, when she knows this not to be true.
Are these stereotypes worth anything to the modern Feminist reader? And whose fault is the gemarah really pointing towards? I think all women will have a similar problem if the husband asserts an essentially vague condition to a divorce. If he is negligent enough to write her a conditional divorce without sending word as to why he didn’t return then any woman will be in trouble. Perhaps the gemarah is taking his faults and turning it into extreme personalities of women.
If I am positing that the fault is of the husband then why call this “the problem of Tznuot and Prutzot.” A “normal” woman, who is neither quick to remarry nor slow to get over her denial, will herself be transformed into a neurotic, trying to weigh the possibilities. Has enough time passed? Did he want to remain married and is trying to get back yet was prevented against his will from returning? Was he eaten by a lion? Did he willingly chose to abandon me because he met a younger more beautiful woman to start a family with in some far off town? The imagination is a dangerous thing.
The experience of not knowing of being trapped in your thoughts and in your nightmares in itself could turn a woman into a Perutzah or a Tznuah. One woman may shrink into herself, nurse her romantic memories, refuse to see the truth of his betrayal and spend the rest of her life mourning his disappearance. While another woman may turn to anger and brazenness. She may let that anger blind her from the hints of his return or prevent her from waiting some reasonable time, or from hiring a private eye. She says “he left me! Well I’m not waiting for him to find himself.”
I like this reading of the text because it doesn’t mean women are by nature extreme emotional beings who can’t be trusted. Rather it is unfair to leave women hanging in lacking of control and lacking information. The fault belongs to the man for leaving her with a worthless conditional divorce, and some of the blame can be shared ultimately with the structure of one-sided marriage that leaves only the woman helplessly chained. Perhaps it’s this blame that actually propels the rabbis to find a way out, to validate this questionable divorce so she can move on.
I'm glad blogs are a place where personal stories of individual agunot are being told. However I kind of cringe when the point is to ask us to pray for these women. It's not that I don't believe in prayer at all, but will God really lend a helping hand if we are all passively reading (and writing) blogs and praying form our computer chairs. What can we do to make a difference?
Perhaps the internet mutes our sense that we need to act becuase we become concerned with the few cases that receive publicity though they may be far from home. We need to be linked into smaller community networks. I want to protest outside of the home of the man down the street, I want to support the woman in my neighborhood. Otherwise our concerns remain waves in the broadband or a prayer blowing in the wind.
Check out Rena Sherbill. She is an amazing spoken word poet who speaks out about feminism, empowerment, women's role in relationships, and the experience of agunot.
Some important legal protests to the current state of the Rabbinical Courts have appeared in the papers this week.
Mavoi Satum and several other groups sued the Minister of Justice in the Supreme Court of Equity. The supreme court actually moved to open the protocols of the committee that chose the latest batch of nepotistically appointed judges. This is a wonderful sign that perhaps people/politicians are becoming aware of the problem of selection of Charedi judges
Also in recent news, Rachel Avraham, backed by the Center for Women's Justice, is suing the Ministry of Justice for the negligence and malice of the Rabbinical courts which kept her waiting 18 years for a divorce from an abusive husband. If you want to know how problematic these judges are and how terrible it is that men can manipulate the system while women can barely use the system- read this article.
On Rosh Hashana we say that Teshuva- Repentance- and Tefila- Prayer- and Tzedaka- Charity- will change our decree. To me this means, mental, emotional and tangible action needs to be taken simultaneously to start our year off right, to change our habits, shed unwanted weight and start over.
Problem is, for those of us Orthodox Jews, once Rosh Hashana starts we won't be writing checks to charity. So it occurred to me this year to think about charity the week before the holiday starts. I'm throwing a gambling party where once you buy in your money goes to Tzedaka, specifically all the money will be donated to Mavoi Satum, one of the many organizations that work to help agunot. Here are some other women's organizations in Jerusalem you might want to support this year.
I guess sometimes we get bored of standing outside of the Misrad Hamishpatim demonstrating on behalf of agunot, especially when the Rabbis don’t seem to notice. Recently some fashion designers in Tel Aviv made a visual statement in support of agunot, designing dresses that embody the individual pain experienced by agunot.
Mavoi Satum has also experimented with some guerilla theatre- how can one forget the grotesque effigy of a chained bride that hung above their conference in February 2006 and the photo below taken at a protest held in March 2006, which did manage to ascertain a get for one woman, who was married to a son of a Rabbinic judge.
But do these creative shows make a difference on the large scale? The Rabbanut doesn’t seem to hang out at guerrilla protests nor are they sitting next to the Tel Aviv catwalk. Education is very important, don’t get me wrong. But what strategy will really make the Rabbanut notice, what campaign will make them hurt or actually manage to embarrass them into doing what’s right?
Last Wednesday I attended a demonstration outside of the Misrad Hamishpatim, the Ministry of Justice. Inside they were appointing yet more Charedi (ultra Orthodox) judges to sit on the Rabbinic Court. The court serves all segments of the population of Israel (Modern Orthodox to Chiloni or secular) except surprisingly the Charedi community itself, on issues of marriage and divorce. The judges are political appointments, often chosen not for their knowledge, ability, or empathy but to pay back favors and soothe political relationships.
Unfortunately the mood was calm, almost chatty. The groups assembled (Icar, Mavoi Satum, and Neemani Torah V'Avodah) who are concerned with helping the cause of agunot, seemed to know that the decision was already sewn up, despite the 20-some who had shown to protest.