How We Can End the Agunah Crisis
For over a decade, Chava has been waiting for her get — a Jewish writ of divorce — from her legal ex-husband Naftali, who continues to keep her chained to a dead marriage. Chava married Naftali in 2006, and after four years of experiencing relentless abuse, she picked up with her two children and left. Although a seruv — an order from a beit din for the community to ostracize him — has been issued, Naftali has made no attempts to give Chava a get, thus preventing her from moving forward with her life. For years, Chava suffered in silence as she struggled to raise her two kids as a single mom with a meager income. Recently, Chava has started sharing her story on social media, and her case has garnered widespread support.
Across our communities, there are hundreds of agunot — chained women — whose husbands refuse to give them a get because their husbands want to use it as leverage to gain a better divorce settlement, as a mechanism to retain control, or simply because they want revenge. Whatever the reason, get refusal should never be accepted, and our community must stand together to oppose this manipulation of Jewish law and to support our most vulnerable members.
To seek help, many agunot turn to ORA: The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a leading organization tackling the agunah crisis. Working within the parameters of Jewish and civil law, ORA explains how they work to help each agunah attain her get in a timely manner through “agunah case advocacy, early intervention programs, and educational initiatives for agunah prevention.”
However, rallies and advocacy efforts only work as a post facto response. The best way to protect individuals and end the agunah crisis is for couples to sign a document known as the Halachic Prenuptial Agreement. There are many misconceptions about the halakhic prenup and how it works, so let’s start from the beginning.
Originally drafted and approved by Rabbi Mordechai Willig, the halakhic prenup is an agreement that a couple signs before marriage that consists of two clauses. First, the couple agrees that in the case of get refusal, they will adjudicate their case in front of the Beth Din of America, of which Rabbi Willig serves as Segan Av Beth Din. This way, if an issue arises, the couple already knows who to turn to.
Second, the couple agrees that in the event that either a husband or wife refuses to participate in the get process, the recalcitrant party must pay the other party $150 a day. The $150 a day is not a punishment or a coercion mechanism; it’s simply the enforcement of a halakhic obligation that a husband must support his wife (Rambam, “Hilkhot Ishut” 12:1-2). The prenup tells a husband that if he wishes to withhold a get, he must continue to support his wife until the marriage is terminated. Likewise, if a woman refuses to accept the get, she must pay her husband $150 a day because the husband is losing out on the support that his wife usually provides.
Importantly, as a legally binding arbitration agreement, the halakhic prenup can be upheld in civil courts. Thus, while a civil court can’t order a husband to deliver a get, it can compel the parties to honor the agreements made, appearing before the Beth Din of America and paying the proper amount of money each day.
As CEO of ORA, Keshet Starr, Esq. told The Commentator, “the Prenup is extremely effective because it is binding under both civil and Jewish law, holds people to a positive standard, and encourages a get early on in a divorce, before animosity rises and parties become entrenched in their positions.”
So far, the halachic prenup has proved highly effective in preventing get refusal and has been upheld in civil case law.
So, why doesn’t everyone sign it?
While some couples don’t sign it simply out of a lack of knowledge, others argue that because divorce and get refusal is such a sad and unlikely possibility, they simply don’t want to discuss it. After all, who would want to talk about the possibility of divorce with the person you plan to spend your life with? This is comparable to a person who decides not to buy insurance or who overlooks genetic testing before starting a family. The sad reality is that sometimes in life we have to plan for things that are hard to think about, and the halakhic prenup should not be excluded from those plans.
Moreover, most people think that they will never need to use the halakhic prenup. Honestly, they are probably right. While most people won’t end up needing it, the reality is that get refusal happens. Even if you think you will never need it, by normalizing this document, you can play a part in making sure someone else never ends up in the horrible situation of being an agunah. You’re not saying that you G-d forbid think this will happen to you, but rather you are making a statement that you love and respect your partner no matter the situation, and you are making a commitment to each other that the get will never be used as a weapon. Most importantly, you are helping create a standard of safety and respect in our community, where we stand up against get refusal and domestic abuse and make sure each individual is protected.
The rabbis and leaders of our communities are doing their part to spread the word and normalize the halakhic prenup — the most effective tool we have to combat the agunah crisis. In 2012, 21 roshei yeshiva at Yeshiva University signed onto a kol koreh urging its leaders and students to use halakhic prenuptial agreements at every Jewish wedding. And, in 2019, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) launched their “I Support the Use of a Halachic Prenuptial Agreement” campaign, garnering 150 signatures from rabbis around the world. However, the real work needs to be done by us — young people who are taking the first steps toward building marriages and families. You can play a role in helping end the agunah crisis by taking small actions such as mentioning the prenup to friends, signing it yourself or signing a postnup if you’re already married. If we want to see a Jewish community built on respect, dignity and Jewish values, we need to spread the word about the importance of the halakhic prenup and make it an established standard in our community.
Photo Caption: The halakhic prenup can allow many women to become free.
Photo Credit: Unsplash