Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dr. Marc Shapiro The Agunah Problem, Part 1; Incarceration and Free Speech- Aguna only if husband refuses to give Get after ordered by Beis Din

This is an important scholarly article and clearly indicates that much of the debate today about aguna revolves around whether one is guided primarily by halacha or by current societal values

As for the problem of women not being able to get a divorce because the man refuses, there are some important points that must be made which I don’t think everyone is aware of. Today, many people assume that a woman who wants out of a marriage, for whatever reason, has that right. After all, a woman is not a prisoner and a husband should not force her to be married to him if she doesn’t want to. However, this viewpoint is very much a modern approach.[6] If you look at the standard halakhic sources you will find that there is no obligation for a man to give his wife a divorce just because she wants it. Ever since R. Gershom, the same situation is also found in reverse, namely, a husband is not allowed to divorce his wife against her will just because he no longer wishes to be married to her. This approach to ending marriage is very much in line with how secular society use to operate before the introduction of no fault divorce.

Significantly, Maimonides does require the husband to give his wife a divorce if she says she no longer wishes to live with him.[7] R. Kafih elaborates on the wisdom of Maimonides’ position, and here are some of his important words[8]: [...]

However, it is the view in opposition to Maimonides that became the standard position, and it is this view that is recorded in the Shulhan Arukh[9] and followed by batei din. According to this approach, even if a woman says she can no longer live with her husband, he is not obligated to give her a get. What this can lead to is most vividly illustrated by the movie Gett, available here to watch for free for Amazon Prime members.

I have been told that the Beth Din of America operates on the principle that if one of the parties wants a divorce, for whatever reason, and there is no chance for reconciliation, then the Beit Din will instruct the other spouse to comply. But this is not how many other batei din operate. We have to be honest and acknowledge that the problem many women face is not because the dayanim are cruel or anti-women, but that it is Jewish law itself, or rather an interpretation of Jewish law, that is preventing them from receiving their divorces.

I feel it is necessary to stress this since we can now better appreciate why certain rabbis have attempted to find solutions within Jewish law to the contemporary agunah problem. Many on the right don’t see why this is necessary and why batei din cannot just follow Jewish law as it has operated until now instead of looking for “solutions”. These people might not realize the difficult situation this puts women in, a situation that might have been tolerable years ago but for more and more Orthodox Jews that is no longer the case. On the other hand, many on the left think that it is a simple matter to solve the agunah problem, and that it is just cruel and insensitive rabbis preventing this. This too is a distortion as the rabbis’ hands are often tied by halakhah, and this remains the case no matter how much of a “rabbinic will” they have.

Let me illustrate what I am talking about. As an example of how sentiments have changed over the centuries, here is a passage from R. Hayyim Benveniste that I have cited in two previous posts. In Keneset ha-Gedolah, Even ha-Ezer 154, Hagahot Beit Yosef no. 59, in discussing when we can force a husband to give a divorce, R. Benveniste writes:

ובעל משפט צדק ח"א סי' נ"ט כתב דאפי' רודף אחריה בסכין להכותה אין כופין אותו לגרש ואפי' לו' לו שחייב להוציא
Can anyone imagine a posek, from even the most right-wing community, advocating such a viewpoint today? The logic behind this position, as can be seen by examining the original responsum in Mishpat Tzedek, is that even if the man is running after her with the knife, we don’t assume that he will actually kill her. He must be doing it just to scare her, and that is not enough of a reason to force him to divorce her, or even to tell him that he is obligated to do so. And if we are wrong, and he really does kill her? I guess the reply would be that this isn’t anything we could have anticipated even if we saw the knife in his hand. This example shows how some poskim from prior generations made it extremely difficult for women to receive a divorce.

Let me give a few examples from more recent years. In 1967 the Supreme Rabbinic Court, consisting of Rabbis Yitzhak Nissim, Betzalel Zolty, and Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, concluded as follows.[10]
כשם שאין כופין בעל לגרש את אשתו בגלל טענת מאיס עלי, כך אין מחייבין את הבעל לגרש עקב טענה זו

This approach, which repeats itself again and again, completely undermines the assumption so many have that a man is obligated to give his wife a get when she no longer wishes to be married to him.

Look again at the conclusion of Rabbis Nissim, Zolty and Elyashiv. It couldn’t be any clearer that this woman is not an agunah. Their conclusion also contradicts the definition of agunah provided by JOFA (see here p. 22).
AGUNAH (pl: AGUNOT) A married woman who may not remarry because the death of her husband has not been verified or because (for whatever reason) she is unable to obtain a get from her husband.
It is simply not true that a woman unable to obtain a get from her husband “for whatever reason” is an agunah. I wish it were different, and I wish Maimonides’ ruling carried the day. But that is not the case, which means that an agunah has to be defined as one whose husband refuses to issue a get after ordered to do so by a beit din. [...]

For another noteworthy example, here is the conclusion of a 1953 Jerusalem Beit Din decision, by the dayanim R. Jacob Ades, R. Bezalel Zolty, and R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv:[13]

החשש כי האשה תצא לתרבות רעה אם הבעל לא יתן לה גט, אינו משמש יסוד לחייב את הבעל לתת לה גט

This decision from the Jerusalem Beit Din has another passage that is very troubling to me. I find it hard to believe that any Modern Orthodox beit din could conclude in this fashion, and it is precisely attitudes such as this that convinced women that the rabbinic courts in Israel were stacked against them.[14]
הא דברועה זונות יש לחייבו לתת לה גט, היינו היכא שהאשה היתה רוצה לחיות אתו, אלמלא שהבעל הוא רועה זונות, במקרה זה יש מקום לחייבו לגרשה כשהיא דורשת גט, משום שרועה זונות יאבד הון וסופו לא יהיה בידו לפרנסה, וגם משום שעצם היותו רועה זונות נוגע לה שהוא גורע מעונתה, וגם יש חשש של סכנה לחיות אתו, אבל במקרה שהאשה מורדת בבעלה ולא רוצה לחיות אתו בגלל איזו סבה שהיא, ואחרי זה נהיה הבעל רועה זונות אף שיש עבירה בידו, מכל מקום אין לחייבו משום זה לתת לה גט, כיון שהיא מורדת בו הרי הוא פטור ממזונותיה ושוב אין החשש שרועה זונות יאבד הון ולא יהיה בידו לפרנסה, וגם אין הטעם שברועה זונות הדבר נוגע לה שהוא גורע מעונתה וגם יש חשש סכנה לחיות אתו, דהלא היא מורדת בו ולא רוצה בכלל לחיות אתו.
 What is a woman supposed to do in a case like this? After learning that her husband frequented prostitutes she had even more reason not to want to return to him, and yet the beit din held that in such a case the husband did not have to give her a get since her initial reason for wanting to be divorced was something else. Again we see that a man can, if he chooses, prevent his wife from being free.[...]

I think people will be shocked to learn that a woman who wants to divorce her husband because he went to a prostitute is being told by the beit din that she must stay with him if he promises not to do it again. But this only illustrates that the so-called agunah problem is inherent to the halakhic system, which according to the dominant interpretation does not recognize that a woman should be able to exit a marriage if she feels she can no longer live with her husband. There are literally hundreds of examples in the responsa literature and beit din proceedings where a woman is told that even though she wants to be divorced, there is no obligation on her husband to give her a get. Isn’t this where poskim must put their efforts to see if changes can be made? What a woman will tolerate today is not necessarily the same thing as what the Sages and earlier poskim assumed, and this is a point that was already made by halakhic authorities in prior generations.[19]

To further illustrate my point, R. Joseph Karo states that even if a husband is beating his wife he can’t be forced to divorce her.[20] She will obviously live apart from him, but R. Karo does not accept the view of some earlier authorities that the husband can be forced to issue her a divorce. This means that the woman is what we would today call an agunah, but the problem we are facing is not just about an evil man but arises from the halakhah itself. As we have just seen, according to R. Karo it is the halakhah that prevents us from forcing a husband to divorce his wife, even if he beats her.

In this case, R. Moses Isserles strongly rejects R. Karo’s opinion and states that we can force a man beating his wife to divorce her.[21] The passage I have underlined is of particular significance regarding the point I made previously.[22]

ואיני רואה בזב דבריו כלל דכדאי הם הגאונים לסמוך עליהם כל שכן שהרמב"ן ומהר"מ הסכימו בתשובותיהן בענין הכאת אשתו והביאו ראיות ברורות לדבריהם גם הסברא מסכמת עמהן ומה שלא הוזכרו בדברי הפוסקים אפשר לומר שהיה פשוט בעיניהם וקל וחומר הוא מהאומר איני זן וכו'

R. Weinberg was asked about a man who was sent to jail for sexual abuse of young girls. Understandably, his wife wanted a divorce. The rabbi didn’t know what to do and therefore wrote to R. Weinberg. He mentions that he never had to deal with a case of sexual abuse and doesn't know how to relate to it from a Jewish law perspective. He also assumes that there was no actual sexual relations but only fondling.

R. Weinberg, relying on the Hakham Zvi, states that the husband cannot be forced to divorce his wife, since he was never warned and there was no testimony in a beit din. He also says that one cannot rely on testimony given in a secular court, and makes the valid point that during that time, the Nazi era, there was a great deal of anti-Semitism and pleasure in making the Jews look bad.

None of this could have been of much comfort to the woman. We have no idea about her relationship with her husband. She might have already suspected him of being a pervert, or when he was arrested it might have clarified certain things that she wondered about. She might have confronted him after the arrest and seeing his reaction to her questions she knew he was guilty. Whatever the case, she no longer wished to remain married to someone she believed to be a sexual abuser. R. Weinberg was as open-minded a posek as one could imagine, yet even he was of the opinion that the husband could not be compelled to divorce his wife.

Today, if someone accused of sexual abuse refused to issue his wife a get, rabbis in the United States would call for protests in front of his house. Yet R. Weinberg does not see this as warranted. I think one of the most difficult things for people to grasp in his responsum, and in that of the Hakham Zvi, is the need for the husband to be warned. We are not talking about sentencing him in a beit din, where warning is a technical requirement, but whether or not the woman wants to live with him any more. In the two cases we have just seen, the issues of concern to the wives are one man’s visits to a prostitute and the other’s sexual abuse of children. Neither wife cared if her husband was “warned” in beit din since the offense is the same to her either before or after the “warning”. [...]

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