The Agunah Crisis, Explained

A recent social media push has amplified an issue affecting Jewish women chained to "dead marriages." Let's break it down.

For years now, the hashtag #FreeChava has been circulating on Instagram. The Chava in question is a Jewish woman who resides in Brooklyn, New York, with her two daughters, who has been separated from her ex-husband, Naftali Eyal Sharabani, since August 2010. While the two are legally divorced, Naftali has refused to give Chava a get, a Jewish bill of divorce, for over a decade, leaving Chava as an agunah, a woman who is chained to a dead marriage.

A few weeks ago, when Jewish singer Dalia Oziel shared a #FreeChava post on her popular Instagram account, the movement to free all agunot — a fight that’s been going on for decades — took off like wildfire on social media. Hundreds of Jews, including many Orthodox influencers, reposted Chava’s story in outrage. Many other agunot publicly came forward as well, raising awareness around what many are calling the “agunah crisis.”

But, let’s backtrack for a minute. What exactly is a get, what does it mean to be an agunah, and what steps are being taken to stop men from abusing this mitzvah from the Torah? Let’s break it down.

What is a get?

Under traditional Jewish law, marriage is essentially a contract. The ketubah, or marriage document, outlines the husband’s responsibilities to the wife.

In turn, if a couple decides to divorce, they must obtain a get (bill of divorce) under the supervision of a beit din, or rabbinic court, which needs to be signed by two witnesses. “Now I do release, discharge, and divorce you [to be] on your own, so that you are permitted and have authority over yourself to go and marry any man you desire. You are permitted to every man,” the text of the get states.

In Jewish law, a man must give a get to his wife — not the other way around. He must also do so by his own free will. “A man who wishes to divorce his wife is not like a woman who seeks divorce from her husband. A woman is divorced in accordance with her will or against her will. A man cannot divorce his wife except of his own free will,” the Mishnah (Yevamot 14:1) states. If the man gives his wife a get against his will, this is considered to be a “forced divorce,” which is void.

What happens if a man refuses to give his wife a get?

If a man refuses to give his wife a get, his wife becomes an agunah (which means anchored in Hebrew). She cannot remarry under traditional Jewish law. “Refusing a get exploits a sacred halakha (Jewish law) and subverts the goal of the mitzvah of get,” Emily Labaton, a community educator, said recently on a panel hosted by the Sephardic Community Alliance.

What are the consequences of a woman not receiving her get, even if she is legally divorced?

If a woman does not receive a get and is still technically married to her ex-husband, she is not permitted to remarry under Jewish law. If she has children with another man, those children are considered “mamzerim,” or children born out of wedlock, and are only permitted under Jewish law to marry other mamzerim. The children of a Jewish man who is still technically married to someone else, however, do not suffer such consequences.

How have men abused the get system?

According to the Orthodox Union, up until recently in our history, agunot referred to women “whose husbands were lost at war or at sea, and who could not remarry without halachically acceptable evidence of their demise.” Today, it refers to husbands who refuse to give their wife a get.

Some men have used the fact that only they can provide a get to extort money, leverage child custody, or simply see their wife suffer. Historically, men have used the get as leverage in divorce negotiations, which is sometimes even condoned by rabbis and family.

Refusing to give your wife a get, no matter the reason, is a form of abuse.

What is a beit din and how do they get involved in the get process?

 A beit din, or rabbinic court, is involved when a legal dispute or issue arises under Jewish law, from property disputes and contract negotiations to conversions and divorces. Most beit dins require all parties to submit to a binding arbitration document, which is recognized as binding under U.S. law.

In simple divorce cases, the beit din merely supervises the divorce proceedings to ensure they adhere to Jewish law. In complicated cases, a beit din can act as a mediator and try to help resolve cases involving spouses who refuse to give their wife a get. Additionally, they can help deal with cases requiring child custody and property division settlements.

What happens, though, if a husband refuses to come to beit din after issuing a summons three times? “If a satisfactory response is still not received from the spouse, the Beth Din may issue a seruv (contempt order) that declares the spouse to be ‘recalcitrant’ and subject to public ostracism and condemnation, calling upon the community to take appropriate action,” the Beth Din of America states. These actions may include public shaming and banning him from community spaces like a synagogue and stores. In practice, though, get refusers rarely suffer any consequences for their behavior — and many have even remarried.

What steps are being taken to eliminate the agunah crisis?

While aspects of the get process have become vulnerable to corruption and manipulation, rabbis have instituted a few clauses over time to try and prevent people from taking advantage of the Jewish laws pertaining to marriage and divorce. For example, the rabbis implemented the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) centuries ago, which protects the wife with a fixed sum of money from her husband in the case of divorce. “In the tenth century of the common era, Rabbeinu Gershom altogether removed a husband’s power to divorce a woman without her consent,” the Orthodox Union states. Additionally, as mentioned previously, rabbis have created halakhic interventions, like the involvement of the beit din, to correct the imbalance.

But, the most solid protection for women against get refusal was created 25 years ago.

The halakhic prenup was first developed in the early 1990s by Rabbi Mordechai Willig with input from halakhic and legal experts and is now widely used in the Modern Orthodox (though not usually Haredi Orthodox) world. According to the agreement, “In the event of an impending divorce, either spouse may require the other to appear before the Beth Din of America. if the couple no longer lives together, the husband becomes obligated to provide monetary support to his wife at a fixed, daily rate (which adjusts for inflation) for so long as they remain married under Jewish law,” the Director of the Beth Din’s Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann writes. The default daily rate is $150, but can be adjusted based on the couple’s standard of living. According to Weissman, the prenup has been effective and enforceable when it comes time for a man to give his wife a get.

In the last decade or so, Modern Orthodox couples have been normalizing prenup parties and the process of signing the prenup. “We love each other so much and our love has only grown since we got married but we believe it is our responsibility as a Jewish couple to sign a Halachic prenup to end the issue of Agunot once and for all,” a Jewish woman, Norma Harary, writes on Instagram.

How has the social media movement enacted change?

Once Chava’s story was shared on Dalia’s Instagram page, the layers of stigma for many agunot unravelled. Abe Manopla, a Sephardic Mexican Jew who goes by the name Mexican Pacino, started featuring agunot (and even the get refusers) on his Instagram Live who opened up about their stories. The Syrian community and other traditional Jews in Flatbush, Brooklyn — led on by local activists like Adina Miles, who runs the popular Flatbushgirl account — were outraged and decided to protest in front of the homes of men who refused to give their wife a get. In just one week, an agunah of 17 years, an agunah of four years, and an agunah of two years were all given their get after social media pressure, public shaming, and community leader involvement.

Is Chava still an agunah?

Unfortunately, yes. When her ex-husband fled to Los Angeles in March, people started protesting to #FreeChava in front of the synagogue that was allowing him to pray with their minyan and hosting him for meals. As people continue to put pressure on him, there are community leaders and organizations still doing everything they can to secure a get for Chava.

Where do we go from here?

The recent social media push to raise awareness and free agunot is truly incredible to witness, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We must continue to rally for agunot because no woman deserves to live chained to the past.

Bonnie Azoulay

Bonnie is a writer based in New York with works published on Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, Coveteur, Man Repeller, Forward and more. She loves wearing fanny packs and laying in the fetal position.

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