Israeli lawmakers are considering a law that would help Orthodox women across the world.
Jewish law does not permit a woman to divorce her husband without his consent, and in Israel and abroad, a number of women who wish to leave their husbands are unable to do so. These women are known as agunoth – literally, chained women.
The Israeli courts have found a solution to this problem, imposing sanctions such as fines and jail time on recalcitrant husbands. But Orthodox women who don’t live in Israel have long suffered without recourse — until now.
The new bill would grant the Israeli rabbinate jurisdiction over all Jewish men – not only those who live in Israel. In this way, it has the potential to provide relief to American and European women chained to husbands who are refusing to divorce them.
This bill did not originate in Israel. During its 2013 Convention in Berlin, the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) of which I am the president called for a multi-pronged approach to alleviate the agunah issue. We called for the implementation of a halachic prenuptial agreement, where both partners agree to abide to a summons of a rabbinical court or face sanctions. We further called for the implementation of legislation in various European countries reflecting existing laws in the UK and in Amsterdam, to tie secular divorce to religious divorce. We also called on European Jewish Communities to excise sanctions against husbands in contempt.
Finally, based on my initiative, the CER adopted a resolution to call on Israeli lawmakers to extend the jurisdiction of the Israeli law to Jewish couples where a woman has become the victim of a husband who uses and abuses the wife’s fidelity to halacha in order to keep her from remarrying.
The law proposed by the Conference of European Rabbis has been supported by a total consensus in the Knesset, from the far left to the far right, and from the militant secularists to the ultra-Orthodox.
It is therefore surprising that some are not pleased. In these pages, Shayna Zamkanei argued that “a careful reading of the memorandum suggests that it may be less about agunoth and more about extending Israeli authority and redefining notions of citizenship.” Rather than attempting to help women, the bill is another example of the Rabbinate trying “to extend its influence over diasporic Jewry on matters of Jewishness and authority.” Zamkanei suggests conditional marriages instead.
Her piece fails to convince on two fronts.
For starters, the bill was not the brainchild of the Israeli rabbinate but of the Conference of European Rabbis. I am proud that our organization initiated this law, a fact mentioned in the official comments to the law.
Indeed, far from an Israeli initiative, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially had reservations with our proposed amendment to extend Israeli jurisdiction to non-citizens, a situation which might invite reciprocal lawsuits against Israeli soldiers and politicians for alleged crimes committed against Palestinians. To address this concern, the law explicitly demands reciprocal proceedings in a rabbinical court outside of Israel, as well as special circumstances; the rabbinical court in Israel must be convinced that there is no viable alternative way to free this agunah in order to proceed.
But Zamkanei’s argument fails on another front, too. The agunah issue is a problem for women who respect halacha. They are chained to husbands by a halachic marriage, and by husbands who do not respect the decision of a rabbinical court to divorce their wives, or ignore the summons of a rabbinical court outright. It’s for this reason that the alternative solutions mentioned by Zamkanei are totally irrelevant. The agunot are chained to these husbands by their fealty to Orthodox law; they would therefore never consider themselves as being free to marry, even after receiving absolution or indulgences from a rabbinical authority, if their divorce were not accepted by mainstream halachic authorities. Zamkanei could just as easily have suggested that conversion to Christianity of the agunoth would have also solved the problem of the agunah.
Zamkanei’s non-halachik suggestions in fact betray why she is disappointed by the law. Of course, if you think the agunah problem is easy to solve, you will not understand how crucial, and how revolutionary, this new law is.
Revolutionary – and we hope effective. Most European Jews visit Israel, have relatives in Israel, and think of moving to Israel at one point in their lives; many know they can flee to Israel if the situation in some European countries gets worse. Thus, the draconian sword of being arrested upon arrival or stopped from leaving the country for contempt of court will help many reluctant husbands make up their minds to comply with a summons or the decision of a local rabbinical court and unchain their wives.
In fact, even before this law came into being, our Beth Din of Moscow solved dozens of agunah cases with the help of Israeli law.
As Diaspora communal structures get increasingly weaker and as the percentages of marriages ending in divorce gets higher and higher, measures like the one presented in this bill will become ever more necessary.
The Knesset has stepped up not only for Israeli women but for halachic women across the world. They should be lauded for it.
The heroes of this bill deserve mention by name for their service to the Jewish community. Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid, head of the women’s lobby of the Knesset, and Shass MK Avraham Michaeli brought this law to the floor. Justice Minister MK Ayelet Shaked gave the support of the ministerial committee for this amendment, as well as Mr. Shimon Jakobi, Director General of the Rabbinical Courts. And Mrs Feiny Sukenik-Goldschmidt and Mrs Chaya Josevic of the “Ba’asher Telchi” organization for Agunoth pushed this amendment for the last four years.
We in the Conference of European Rabbis are proud to have been the initiator of this process, and as a fringe benefit, we are also proud to have brought a moment of unity to our beloved country, which is sometimes so divided. That we could all come together to help the most vulnerable in our midst is a testimony to what we are capable of.
Pinchas Goldschmidt is the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and President of the Conference of European Rabbis.