Bobby and Chelle Medow are happily married — and have been for almost 50 years. Yet one Sunday evening in January, the St. Louis couple made contingency plans for a divorce. And 31 other Orthodox married couples joined them.
They are part of a small but budding movement that is being promoted by some Orthodox rabbis around the country as a way to expand protection for Jewish women. But like its precursor, the prenuptial agreement, the postnuptial agreement now spreading within Orthodoxy’s liberal wings has yet to catch on more broadly as a way to prevent the phenomenon of agunot, or chained women, in the world of the traditionally observant.
Like a prenuptial agreement, postnups are designed to help solve the issue of men who refuse to grant their wives a religious divorce during or after a civil divorce settlement. Without such a written agreement from her husband, known as a get, a religiously observant woman may not remarry.
Under a system first proposed to address this inequity in the early 1990s by Modern Orthodoxy’s largest clerical association, prospective marriage partners can sign a prenuptial agreement that requires each partner to grant his or her spouse a get upon civil divorce or face steep fines enforceable in civil courts. But even as some Orthodox rabbis embraced the concept, requiring the couples they wed to sign these forms, the Rabbinical Council of America, which first proposed this idea, has itself never made using prenups a requirement for its member rabbis.
Among Orthodox rabbis who did embrace prenuptial contracts, another issue remained: Many Orthodox couples were wed long before the prenup appeared on the scene, or were married by a rabbi who did not require it. These women, though already married, were no less subject to peril in the event of a divorce.
“This isn’t something you just get grandfathered into,” said Rori Picker-Neiss, a fourth-year student at Yeshivat Maharat, a liberal Orthodox yeshiva for women. Picker-Neiss, who works for Bais Abraham Congregation, the venue for the St. Louis event, summed up the problem succinctly: “If we changed the policy and every Orthodox rabbi tomorrow started to only do weddings with a prenup, then we could maybe solve this problem in 50 to 60 years.”
As with prenuptial agreements, the postnuptial contracts require couples to appear before a predetermined beit din or rabbinic court for religious divorce arbitration when a civil divorce takes place. If the man subsequently refuses to grant his wife a get, the beit din will require him to pay his wife $150 per day until he relents — a fine enforceable in civil court.