In Orthodox Jewish divorce proceedings, women cannot unilaterally pursue divorce. The get must be given to her by her husband. If he doesn’t grant one, she becomes known as an agunah, or a chained woman, meaning she can’t remarry. “Recalcitrant husbands,” as they are often called, deny their wives divorces for a variety of reasons, but often to extract a better custody, child support, or alimony arrangement. Or sometimes the refusal is the result of pure animus. Whatever the reason, there are many Orthodox women who wait for their official divorce papers for years, sometimes even decades. The Orthodox courts can offer these women little in the way of recourse.
Which bring us to the pair of Orthodox rabbis just arrested and arraigned in federal court for allegedly orchestrating the kidnapping and torture of men who refused to grant their wives divorces. As the New York Times reported, the rabbis allegedly charged these women $50,000 for their services.
If guilty, are these rabbis villains or heroes? Are they simply doing what thugs always do—finding a restricted good or service and then profiting from those in need of it? Or are they actually saviors to these chained women?
“Disgusted might not adequately describe our feeling over the allegations of violence and mafia-like tactics toward recalcitrant husbands,” writes Rabbi Eliyahu Fink in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “but these rabbis were heroes to women left with no options.”
But why don’t they have other options? This isn’t like being diagnosed with an illness that has no known cure. That the women find themselves in this situation is the result of a legal code that doesn’t recognize their autonomy and a system that enables husbands to hold their wives hostage. Jewish law gave these men a cudgel with which to victimize their wives. Without this bit of leverage, they’d just be jerks in the midst of a divorce.
When it comes to solving the “agunah crisis” as it is called, Orthodox rabbis who aren’t kidnapping have mostly offered Band-Aids. The most popular solution to date has been a prenuptial agreement that stipulates that if a man refuses to grant the get, he’ll be fined $100 a day until he concedes. To date, as far as I know this prenup has been tested once in an American court and was successful. But its use is still not widespread in Orthodox marriage ceremonies, especially not in ultra-Orthodox ones. It also requires the involvement of secular courts, which many ultra-Orthodox Jews are reluctant to use.
And the prenup, whether or not it will be able to prevent future suffering and abuse, still maintains the status quo. Women, in its formulation, are still subordinate, only able to get a divorce if their husband permits. The real and lasting solution is not to figure out how to more effectively twist the arms of recalcitrant husbands, whether literally or with a legal document. It’s to rethink the status of women in marriage and divorce proceedings. The solution is for women to not have to ask permission in the first place—not from their husbands and not from the rabbinic courts.
There is a tendency to point to the recalcitrant husbands as the cause of the “agunah crisis.” But they're just a symptom. Whenever you give leverage and power to one group over another, abuses arise.