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How the Fast of Esther Became International Agunah Day

Image by Jeff Belmonte, via Wikimedia Commons

They say that history repeats itself. They say that human nature never changes. They say that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All these phrases which do or do not express common wisdoms do actually come together when examining the connection between Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Queen Esther which is commemorated the day before Purim on the 13th of Adar) and International Agunah day which was set to fall on the same day (this year March 4th).

What then is the meaning of having International Agunah Day on the same day that Ta’anit Esther is observed? The key to the answer lies with the woman (as do many of today’s dilemmas within Judaism). Or perhaps more accurately — the untenable situation in which the Jewish woman finds herself through no fault of her own.

The commonality between the woman who was Queen Esther and the woman who is a modern-day agunah exists on two levels—the aspect of her distress and the nature of her salvation.

In the story related in Megillat Esther we meet Esther as a beautiful young woman, one of many taken without asking her preference to the royal palace, for the purpose of finding a new queen for King Ahasuerus. Esther was subsequently taken to the king within his palace and married to him against her will. King Ahasuerus crowned Esther and made her his queen. Herein lays the aspect of Esther’s distress: Despite having been coronated as queen, Esther lived in fear of divulging her real identity and ethnicity. She monitored her speech and her words.

Like Esther of old, the modern-day agunah is bound to an unwanted marriage. As Esther did in the days of yore, many of today’s victims of get-refusal live in fear of their husbands—leading double lives. Like Esther, the victim of get-refusal and the agunah’s husband controls their personal status and they find themselves helpless to achieve freedom.

However, when Esther is called upon, by her righteous uncle Mordechai, to find a way to save the nation, she rises to the challenge and in turn orders him to convene all the Jews to fast for her prior to her taking her life in her hands by approaching the king. She accepts the mantle of leadership, at great personal cost– even at the cost of her life — yet recognizes that salvation will only be achieved through all of the people taking action together. The power of the people lies in its unity.

Esther’s insight has indeed carried the Jewish people through the ages. International Agunah Day aims to unite all of the Jewish people in erasing the blight of get-refusal and agunot from our society. Like Esther’s call for unity, a call is issued to recognize that the phenomenon of get-refusal is destructive to a healthy Jewish collective. A righteous Jewish society must rise to the challenge and correct the situation from within unity of its people.

Dr. Rachel Levmore, Rabbinical Court Advocate, is the Director of the Agunot and Get-Refusal Prevention Project, of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency. She is a sitting member of the State of Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.

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