Contemporary Activism to Save Agunot

An activist for agunot traces her development from demonstrator to promoter of prenuptial agreements that help protect women in the event of a divorce.

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But, I found, fighting for individual agunot was inadequate. We had to root out the cause of the problem; put more balance in the unbalanced state of Jewish family law. Initially, I was part of the founding committee of the International Coalition for Aguna Rights, whose aim was to bring the plight of the agunah to the front of the Jewish communal agenda, to agitate the rabbis in all countries for change, to encourage governments to enact laws to pressure recalcitrant husbands. But this became too large, slow, and unwieldy for my tastes. I was young and could not see how interminable committee meetings would lead rabbis to bend their understandings of the law, not to mention governments.

Around this time, there was a movement to introduce a special kind of prenuptial agreement as a mandatory part of a Jewish marriage. The agreement was an ingenious idea that would put financial pressure on the husband to divorce his wife after the marriage had broken down, but would not violate the law requiring that the man give the get "of his own free will."

This idea gained the approval of prominent rabbis, and, unlike some other "solutions" to the problem, looked like it just might work. The agunah problem is unique in Jewish law in that rabbis are deeply afraid of the consequences of making the wrong legal decision--who wants to be the cause of a generation of mamzers? Any solution had to have the approbation of many prominent rabbis and lay people. In kashrut [Jewish dietary laws], for example, there can be a plethora of answers to complex meat vs. milk questions, because a person is answerable only to her Maker if she eats the wrong food. But if you follow the minority opinion of a creative rabbi in matters of get and agunah, you might end up with children whose marriage opportunities are severely limited.

As a result of this conundrum, issues of Jewish family law require a very high degree of consensus, which means change is very difficult to effectuate. And it looked like the prenuptial agreement was gaining that high, majority ground. When I saw the tipping point coming, I decided that this was my chance to jump in. A friend urged me to establish an organization to promote the prenuptial agreement, and we found a welcoming home at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan.

I wanted it to sound optimistic, so I called it the Wedding Resource Center (WRC). Wasn't I, by freeing chained women, allowing more Jewish weddings to come into the world? And we renamed the prenuptial agreement the Marriage Protection Agreement (MPA), because we weren't interested in dividing the material spoil after divorce, but rather, in protecting the precious institution of the Jewish marriage.

Our aim at the WRC was to ensure that before every wedding, the couple signed a MPA. Even better, we wanted to convince rabbis that they should not marry anyone without ensuring they had signed a MPA.

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Viva Hammer

Viva Hammer is a tax attorney in Washington, D.C. She was the co-founder and director of the Wedding Resource Center, which was established with the goal that no Jewish marriage take place without a Marriage Protection Agreement. She has written for The Washingtonian, Lilith, Jewish Action, Los Angeles Jewish Journal, and many other places.