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Coma Case Could Mean Leap Forward for Agunot

A woman gestures at a Jerusalem demonstration to help agunot / Haaretz

We’re familiar with the stories of recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give their wives a get, a religious writ of divorce, effectively preventing them from remarrying. But less discussed is the heart-wrenching experience of women whose husbands are alive, but unable to interact with them in any way.

The Israeli city of Safed is known for its religious conservatism, but it has just come up with a massive innovation in Jewish law. While a husband’s consent is generally needed to approve a divorce, the Safed Rabbinical Court has just made an exception.

A man who has been in a coma for seven years following a motorbike accident has just been divorced from his wife, a 34-year-old mother of one, Haaretz reports. She believed that he will never regain consciousness, and wanted the opportunity to remarry.

The court employed a complex principle in Jewish law that allows one person to take action on behalf of a second person if it will benefit the second person. This can apply, for example, in the case of acquiring possessions.

In the Safed case, granting a divorce was decided to be in the husband’s interest, because he’s unable to fulfill his duties towards his wife, as laid down by religious law, while on the other hand he has no benefit from staying married. In short, the court justified the divorce by saying that it actually solves the problem that the husband was married but absent from his marriage.

This is one of the boldest moves on record on the subject of agunot or “chained wives” — and one that inevitably brings criticism from some. There is the general criticism that it can be seen as violating the husband’s rights as he may regain consciousness. And there is the religious objection, which has been expressed by some influential rabbis, that the logic used to divorce the woman was too much of a stretch to Jewish legal principles.

The question now is whether this ruling will become accepted as a precedent-setter, and one that encourages further creativity in agunot cases, or whether it will cause a backlash and lead to bolstered conservatism on these matters.

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