June 15, 2024
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Waiting and Seeing on Agunah Court

As 2014 begins, little has been revealed about the new International Agunah Beit Din to begin functioning in February of this year as announced at the bi-annual conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) on December 8.

Rabbi Simcha Krauss has agreed to serve as the head of the court. He is a lecturer in Yeshiva University’s IBC (Israel By Choice) program for 20 years and a former president of the Religious Zionists of America affiliated with Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem. He is also the former rabbi of the Young Israel of Hillcrest and thought of as a moderate among the Orthodox.

He told JLBC, “I am not a revolutionary, and I understand that halakha moves slowly but it’s been too slow. It’s time.”

Except for some of the principles and operations, few details of the planned court have been made available, but what has been said is this: There would be six to 10 dayanim (religious court judges); each case would be taken on its merits; work would be timely; and there would be standard legal fees, but no woman would be turned away for a lack of ability to pay.

The beit din would call on mental health professionals for their expertise and incorporate input from women and divorce mediators. The court would include an ombudsman and there would be transparency in its findings—but the names of couples would not be included in the records that are made public.

Judges salaries would be comparable to Israeli judges (though the court is scheduled to start operations in New York). The court would support pre-nuptial agreements and will also handle divorce cases that did not involve agunot.

While it has been stated that the court will use halakhic devices, no examples have been released—which has had many rabbis holding back their opinions on the new court. Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the modern Orthodox umbrella organization respected by the Ultra-Orthodox said, “Exactly what approach they’ll be using and mechanisms to try to solve the problems of these women have not been made public, nor has the reasoning or the research behind it.”

He said he had some assumptions of what might be done, but they’re not part of the public discussion. “In Devarim it hints that if a couple does not want to remain married a husband has to give his wife a bill of divorcement. What that means, and how he gives it and what the details and the technicalities are is fleshed out in the oral tradition which was recorded in the Talmud and has been part of the rabbinic tradition and interpretation of it for centuries.” He said the Torah gave the power to the sages to interpret and develop the laws but not to ignore them.

This has resulted in a few different mechanisms for dissolution of a marriage. “Traditionally marriages have dissolved through death of a spouse or through the issuance of a get. Under very limited circumstances we have some precedent where rabbis have either annulled marriages and there have been major debates throughout the generations as to whether any rabbinic court today has the authority to do that.” He said according to most authorities, it can only be done if a Jewish divorce document was delivered to a woman but was somehow invalid.

Another means to dissolve the marriage, but also used under limited circumstances, is if there were misrepresentations at the time of the marriage. “Then there was never a marriage in the first place.” One such misrepresentation might be that the husband failed to inform his wife that he was impotent. Sterility or not wanting to have children isn’t considered grounds—though a thousand years ago, if a couple were married for 10 years and didn’t have children, a Beit Din would force them to divorce.

“That has been used on very rare occasions by some leading rabbinic authorities over the generations and it’s my assumption, because I don’t know and I haven’t the details that they (the Agunah Court) could move in that kind of direction. If they have a recalcitrant husband who’s not granting the get to his wife it seems to me that’s the only other option.”

How this might be done and upon what grounds is unknown at this time. “There is so much unknown about the details it hard to form an opinion about it.”

However, Dratch said the RCA would like this to be successful because they’d like them to solve the problems that exist and prevent future problems.

What the outside world perceives of the process of Jewish divorce is not something that Rabbi Datch thinks should be taken into consideration. “We have to stand by the integrity of Jewish law and of the Jewish religion even if it’s not favorable in the eyes of others.”

However, in his phone conversation with JLBC, Rabbi Dratch seemed hopeful. “The rabbis who have been announced to be included and affiliated with the new court are very respected and respectable. “I spoke to Rabbi Krauss and he said he would only be doing what he’s doing in consultation with some of the very respected rabbis of Jerusalem.”

One such rabbi is Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, a rosh yeshiva, posek, and Chief Justice of the Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem. “Rabbi Zalman said he would not make a decision that could not be supported by Rabbi Goldberg, which is important in terms of credibility.”

Two of the rabbis named as Dayanim (judges) were Rabbi Yosef Blau, a mashgiach ruchani (spiritual supervisor or guide) of Yeshiva Rabbenu Yitzchak Elchanan (Yeshiva University) and Rabbi Joseph Polak, who served as director of the Hillel at Boston University and chairs the halakha committee of the Boston bet din. Another rabbi who has stated his support is She’ar Yashuv Cohen, former Chief Rabbi of Haifa and president of its rabbinic courts.

Other than Rabbi Dratch, the questions about the Court brought little comment from the haredim—though it is their acceptance which has been most sought. One haredi rabbi who is considered an expert in this area of halakha law but would not allow his name to be used, said while he had heard of the formation of the Court, there was nothing to comment on and so he could not say whether he would be supportive of it or not.

Another rabbi, Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and considered too liberal by the haredi rabbis, would only say that his hope is that the Beit Din gets the good wishes of every group within the spectrum of Orthodoxy and that it will speak for Orthodox halakha as a whole.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a haredi rabbi who serves as director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, responded to emails saying that the problem of recalcitrant husbands persists, tragically, and must be addressed as effectively as possible. “As you may know, freeing agunot (traditionally, they were women whose husbands had disappeared in times of war and such; today the term is used more often for wives of recalcitrant men) has always been a prime focus of the greatest halakhic minds, and an assortment of halakhic principles have been mustered to effect such freedom (or compel a husband to give a get.)

“Agudath Israel has no position on any beit din, other than an expectation that every beit din will render objective and properly adjudicated halakhic decisions. The planned ‘Agunah Court,’ if it meets that standard, will be a happy development. If it doesn’t, though, it will be a terrible one, as matters of divorce halakhot are serious ones, with potential repercussions on not only the principals but on the women’s future children from a second marriage. But the court, as I understand it, doesn’t yet exist, and so has no ‘track record’ at present.

Rabbi Shafran responded to a question concerning the F.B.I. raid in October in Monsey, NY and the beit din which was allegedly paid $10,000 to approve the use of physical violence, and an additional $60,000 paid to the men who tortured a husband using a cattle prod, to gain a get from a recalcitrant husband.

“It is true that a legitimate beit din has always had the right to compel a man judged to be recalcitrant to give his wife a get. In the past, when Jews had autonomy within kingdoms and countries, such compelling could even include physical compulsion. To the best of my understanding, the law of the land in a country like ours, which prohibits such physical forcing, would take precedence, and thus it would be improper to do what the men at issue are accused of doing. But that, too, is ultimately a halakhic matter.”

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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