(JTA) — For years, Rachel Light felt like a hostage, worried she would be forever trapped in her marriage to Eben Light.
Even in April 2012, after Eben was arrested for allegedly threatening her and was slapped with a restraining order, Rachel was unable to get a writ of Jewish divorce, or get.
That made her an agunah – Hebrew for “chained woman” – putting her in the company of hundreds of other Orthodox women who cannot remarry because their husbands refuse to grant them divorces according to Jewish law, or halachah.
Fortunately for Rachel, who was Modern Orthodox, she and her husband had signed a halachic (Jewish ritual) prenuptial agreement. In 2013, hers was the first such prenup to be enforced in a U.S. civil court. Light obtained her get and a substantial financial settlement in Connecticut.
“I’m so thankful that I happened to have signed it, because I don’t know that I’d be remarried today with an awesome, wonderful new family without it,” Light told JTA. “But nevertheless, it’s not going to be able to help everybody in every case, and I would love to see a solution that could.”
First developed in the 1990s in an attempt to protect women from becoming agunot, halachic prenuptial agreements stipulate that the couple in a dissolving marriage must come before a predetermined court of Jewish law. If the man refuses to provide the get, he must provide a financial settlement, typically in the range of $150 per day – an agreement enforceable in civil court.
Yet while halachic prenuptial agreements have been touted as a solution to the agunah problem, they have hardly been a panacea – because many are reluctant to sign them in the first place.
“Those who are most likely to need to use it are least likely to sign it,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which says it deals with more than 150 cases of agunot per year.
The problem is unique to the Orthodox world, because non-Orthodox movements have rejected or found ways around traditional rules that give husbands practically all the leverage. And, frustratingly for advocates on behalf of agunot, most Orthodox couples hail from segments of the community that aren’t interested in halachic prenups.
“The problem is in the black-hat and haredi community, where they don’t have prenups or rabbis don’t agree to enforce the idea of having a prenup,” said Stanley Goodman, director of an organization known as GET - Getting Equal Treatment.