Monday, July 10, 2017

Relieving the Agony of the Agunah

by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students, Diaspora Yeshiva

The plight of the Agunah wife is an ongoing tragedy. Recently, a woman who has been an Agunah for 17 years went on a hunger strike in Jerusalem. An Agunah (literally a chained wife) is one whose husband deserts her and refuses to give her a GET (divorce document), thus preventing her from remarrying. The leading Rabbis in every generation have tried to find solutions, even far-fetched ones, for the distress of Agunot.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger helped to release an Agunah with the explanation that, "The time is right to release a Jewish wife from being an Agunah, and Jewish women should not be Hefker (ownerless victims who are trapped and might be led to sin). Thus we are going to be lenient with an Agunah."

The Maharam of Rotenberg in his Responsa goes so far to rescue an Agunah by invoking the concept of "Mekach Ta'ut" ("a marriage under false pretenses"). Had the wife known that her husband was so cruel, she never would have married him in the first place.

Therefore the act of Kiddushin (marriage) is annulled "L'Mafrei'a" (retroactively) using the concept of Hefker Beit Din Hefker (what Beit Din declares null and void is null and void). The Maharam also explains, "Kol HaMekadesh al da'atei d'Rabbanan Mekadesh" "Everyone who contracts a Jewish marriage does so with the consent and agreement of the Rabbis."

These great Rabbis of the past were no less G-d fearing than the Dayanim of today. They were also familiar with the warning of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7) against hastiness in judgment, "A Dayan (Rabbinic judge) must always see himself as though the gates of hell are open beneath him." However, the Maharam and Rabbi Akiva Eiger in their awareness of their great responsibility were not afraid to seek solutions for complex questions about Agunot. Moreover, according to Kabbalah, releasing an Agunah brings the Final Redemption closer.

Today we also have the widespread syndrome of Jewish wives being Hefker by being held captive and denied a GET by their husbands. Solving their problem according to Halachah is one of the major Rabbinic challenges of today. Israeli law has authorized the Rabbinical Courts to send a husband, who denies a GET to his wife, to prison. However, there are Dayanim (Rabbinic Judges) who are opposed to such an enforcement, for fear of a Get Kofui - a divorce, granted under coercion, which is not considered valid. Consequently there are many cruel husbands who exploit this situation for prolonged abuse against their chained and captive wives.

This is a complicated and complex issue. On the one hand, a GET, imposed on the husband against his will, is invalid according to the Halachah. On the other hand, the Rambam rules concerning a husband who refuses to give his wife a GET, "He is beaten until he says, 'I agree'." The Rambam says that such a GET is kosher and valid. This seeming contradiction is explained by the existence or lack thereof of a decree of Beit Din requiring the husband to divorce his wife. Most Halachic opinions agree that without such a prior Rabbinical Court decree, even mild persuasion might threaten the non-coerced requirement of the GET.

With such a Rabbinical Court decree, requiring the husband to divorce his wife, persuasion, coercion and even physical force are considered valid to bring the husband to want to comply with the decree of the Beit Din and give a GET of his own free will.

Today's Rabbanim are divided over the types of sanctions which, according to Halachah, can be imposed on husbands who deny their wives a GET. The unresolved nature of these differences of Rabbinical opinions has caused many wives to live as captive women to unscrupulous and cruel husbands who hold them in chains to blackmail them to receive a GET.

Many Rabbinical Judges seem to ignore the directive of the great Maharsha in the Talmud Bavli Yevamot who says, "To flee an Agunah our Rabbis invoked many far reaching leniencies."

The Maharsha concludes that, "G-d must grant courage to Rabbinical Judges so that trapped and captive suffering wives will be blessed with peace and domestic tranquility."

If only our current Rabbis had the moral courage and Torah wisdom of the Holy Maharsha!


  1. Thanks for your post on this topic, Rabbi. Wouldn't it be wonderful if rabbinical authorities could hold a conference and decide what rules led to an automatic mandating of the GET? I am an agunah and I find that violence ; all kinds of abuse ; stealing ; denial of basic civil rights; and more don't suffice to get the rabbinical decree. On top of the 5 years PTSD I suffered from the abuse, I get slandered by my husband every time I try to speak out. This is a huge problem. The more abusive the husband is, the more the courts themselves are used to further the abuse of the wife. The husband commits crimes and eludes all the authorities and then turns around and accuses the wife of what he did. In the meantime he withholds the GET and extorts endless sums of money. In Israel abuse is rampant but a true understanding of what abuse is hardly exists. Halachot protect women but in order for the religion to protect women, rabbis must have the courage to invoke them even when society's male dominance and male privilege may disapprove. Jewish ethics is about compassion for the weak. If a woman is made powerless by her husband due to laws that allow it, shouldn't rabbis help the women by the full arsenal of halachot available to them ? I am a convert and even my former family got abused and extorted by the exploitation of male privilege in Jewish religion. It is horrible and I pray rabbis not so much as change law as uphold ancient decrees there to protect the weak (women). If only Rambam could be reborn to guide the rabbis of today.

    1. I am always saddened to hear about such a situation in a Jewish family. That is especially true since it is not Hashem’s system that is faulty, it is the human beings who pretend to live under Hashem’s guidance, but are very much living under the upside-down fantasy world of today.

      It is a shame when people have a secular moment, abuse Hashem’s perfect system and blame it on the wrong thing. Even Rabbis who don’t really know Halachah, but do as the seculars do and hurt everyone involved. This is especially true since it is the unusual situation and not the norm, but the events that get the most attention.

      The observant Jewish world is still the most humane, merciful and fair way to live. Statistics prove that that we have the lowest divorce rate in the world, the least amount of spouse abuse, least amount of child abuse, least amount of broken families, least amount of drug problems, least amount of killing and thievery, just about no sexual problems such as teen pregnancy, homosexuality, abortion, sexual abuse, etc.

      When people like to tell me “I know an observant Jew who did this or that…” I always answer with “you know a someone who had a secular moment.” Improper behavior is not within Judaism; it is for people who do not live by Hashem’s commandments.

      The good news is the whole world system will change soon with the worldwide redemption. Everyone will live only according to Hashem’s ways – it will be paradise; only love, no hatred. How will that happen? The Yetzer Harah will no longer exist, and the evil of the world will be gone, B”H.

    2. One additional note. Hashem’s system in this world is completely fair. It is measure for measure. Good deeds get great reward; improper deeds get retribution. No abusive spouse gets away with his action. Hashem will take care of him measure for measure – guaranteed.

  2. Fake Gitten a unending tragedy see:

  3. An "Agunah" in the past was a woman whom her husband dissapeared and was missing ,Not today's woman seeking divorce on demand
    In torah law there is no "divorce on demand" only in very limited situations and even then must be given by man not be coerced in any way , only real free will of husband that the torah law We dont want momzerim!!!!!??!!
    "The Maharam of Rotenberg in his Responsa goes so far to rescue an Agunah by invoking the concept of "Mekach Ta'ut" ("a marriage under false pretenses"). Had the wife known that her husband was so cruel, she never would have married him in the first place." end Quote
    Rabbi Moshe Feinstien a foremost Posek only used this type of Hetter twice! in his whole career as Chief Posek of USA
    This type of Psak must be taken extremely GRAVELY if at all and ONLY by the Greatest Posek of the generation.

  4. See THis:

  5. To look for stringencies to allow men to abuse their wives through the withholding of a GET seems to go against Jewish ethics. Some women escaped life threatening marriages only to see more of their lives ruined by the GET refusal. There may be laws to uphold even such cases but to cite them is wrong in every sense--- there is the law and the spirit of the law, and there are certainly Jewish laws that support the respect for life, including women's, to counter ones that ruin and take away life. I don't believe there is any justification for anyone to ignore the afflictions of agunot. Agunot are helpless, powerless, abused and oppressed. G-d hears and sees their suffering. If He is slow to anger, it may be because He is testing the society to see if people really care about the weak and oppressed. For Jewish law to be cited to uphold the oppression of the powerless is unheard of, unbelievable. The plight of an agunah is that of the Suffering Servant. Maybe G-d will bring about the ultimate Freedom all long for when leaders pity those in Israel and under Jewish law who are not free. Isn't that why the ancient sages said that the one who frees a single agunah is as one who lays the founding stones of the new Temple ?

    1. It says in Pirkei Avos that Hashem doesn't want us to just study Torah, He wants us to Live Torah. The problem with human beings is very few know the laws of Hashem and even fewer live them. The system from Hashem works. The carrying out of that system needs much work.

      It is the entire purpose of this blog. Getting people to live the Absolute Truth is extremely difficult. That is what Teshuvah is all about. If we do everything in life with the welfare of others in mind, it is the way Hashem wants to see us live and it is the best thing we can do for ourselves. We are spiritual beings wearing physical clothing. The more Teshuvah we do, the more spiritual we are and the less we are like animals.

      The humane treatment of an Agunah is a prime example. We either follow Hashem's ways, or we are animals hurting ourselves as well as others.