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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Categories of Agunot

In sum, four principal categories of the agunah have emerged in modern times and are on the increase:

1. A man divorces his wife in the civil courts and possibly even remarries, but refuses to give his wife a get, either because of malice or greed. All too often the husband tries to extort money from his wife in exchange for the get.

2. A man disappears without leaving a trace, so that he is not available to issue the divorce that halakhah demands. During the early decades of the 20th century , when mass Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe reached its height, Yiddish newspapers published a regular feature, "The Gallery of Missing Husbands," asking readers to help locate the errant spouses. Together with photographs, there would appear pathetic pleas for help from the deserted wives.

3. The man is lost in military action or dies in a mass explosion. In modern war, combatants are often blown to bits. Where there is no hard evidence that the soldier is dead, the wife becomes an agunah, since halakhah has no such category as "declared" or "legally" dead.

During the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, some great Russian rabbis visited the troops before they left for the front and persuaded the Jewish soldiers to issue a get al tenai, a "conditional divorce," so as to free their wives from the status of agunah should the men fail to return. But obviously this temporary procedure, however helpful in individual cases, did not meet the growing dimensions of the problem.

4. Not strictly a case of "desertion" but similar to it is the rarer case of a childless widow who, according to halakhah, requires halitzah (release) from her husband's brother before she can remarry. [Biblical law requires her brother-in-law to marry her to perpetuate the dead husband's "name" by providing his wife with a child. The ceremony of halitzah releases the widow from this obligation.] This situation has also served as an occasion for extortion.

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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.