Agunot: A Different Kind of Hostage

Divorce is meant to take care of the wife. But occasionally, a husband will manipulate the system.

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Problem Becomes Insoluble as Jewish Community Loses Power

The problem of the agunah was relatively soluble as long as Jewish tradition retained its authority and the Jewish community had the power to enforce its decisions. This condition prevailed everywhere during the Middle Ages and, until our own century, in Eastern Europe. And because it did, there were extralegal procedures, such as public opinion and social ostracism, that could be used to secure the husband's compliance. In addition, the court could impose a herem (excommunication), which meant total isolation for the offender. Generally, the threat sufficed to bring the husband into line.

jewish divorceNevertheless, the responsa--the legal decisions of the great rabbinic authorities of the Middle Ages--include many cases of unfortunate women chained to a recalcitrant or nonexistent spouse.

The breakdown of the Babylonian center about the year 1000 C.E., and its replacement by a multiplicity of independent communities in North Africa, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and Eastern Europe, led to a general fragmentation of authority that created many areas of local jurisdiction. The power of individual rabbinic leaders to compel obedience was now correspondingly reduced. The frequent uprooting of Jewish communities, the mass migrations and the transplantation of individuals, accompanied by the deaths of countless individuals through natural disaster, famine, or massacre, substantially increased the number of agunot. In spite of all ameliorative efforts, the lot of the agunah remained an unhappy one.

Beginning with the second half of the 18th century, the Enlightenment and the Emancipation wrought havoc with the traditional pattern of Jewish life. The admission of Jews into political citizenship, civic equality, and economic opportunity was directly and explicitly linked to the surrender of the authority of Jewish traditional law and to the loss of the legal status of the Jewish community, which now became in effect a voluntary association with no coercive power.

In some quarters today, both the Emancipation and the Enlightenment are decried as totally evil, though one sees little evidence of a wholesale stampede to turn in citizenship papers and return to the ghetto. (The only possible exceptions are some Hasidic groups that have never left it.) The fact is that both modern movements brought substantial benefits to Jews and Judaism--but they exacted a heavy price, in the form of assimilation and alienation.

The rapid growth of secularism and the establishment of civil marriage and divorce in nearly all Western countries coincided with the mass migration of millions of individuals from one country to another. These factors gave rise to a large increase in the number of agunot. Women loyal to Jewish tradition were, of course, the chief victims.

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Dr. Robert Gordis (1908-1992) taught for over half a century at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as Professor of Bible and Rapoport Professor in the Philosophies of Religion. He served as a congregational rabbi and as editor of Judaism: A Quarterly Journal. Among his many books are Love and Sex and Dynamics of Judaism: A Study in Jewish Law.