Some rabbis insist on prenups

For some Jewish women the problem isn’t getting married, it’s relinquishing the bonds when things go sour.
Tribune News Service
Feb 9, 2014

That’s because an Orthodox Jewish divorce isn’t like any other. To obtain a divorce in the Orthodox Jewish community, a wife must first secure a “get,” a letter dictated by the husband and written by a trained scribe that in essence gives his wife permission to sever the marriage and move on. Without it, she is unable to remarry and any future offspring she might have is considered illegitimate. In other words, she is what is referred to as an “agunah,” a chained woman.

Increasingly, the agunah problem is getting the attention of Orthodox rabbis who are insisting that couples who plan to marry have a prenuptial agreement.

The agreements stipulate that in the case of a divorce, the couple will go to rabbinical court, a tribunal made up of three rabbis, and abide by whatever the judge says. It also specifies that the wife must be paid $150 for every day she and her husband live apart but remain married.

Some Orthodox Jewish women struggling to persuade their husbands to grant them a divorce fear that if they try to carry on without one they face potential backlash from the community they yearn to be part of, as well as an uncertain future in the afterlife.

“In truly religious folk, they’re not only worried about how people are going to think about them ... they’re worried about sinning. Adultery is sinning, and the Bible itself says it carries the death penalty,” said Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abraham Congregation, who also plans to sign a postnuptial agreement on Sunday.

The issue of agunah most directly affects the Orthodox community, with its strict adherence to Jewish law.

But even some non-Orthodox Jews wrestle with the question of attaining a “get.” Those, for example, who plan to marry someone within Orthodox Judaism must ensure they are regarded as single. Or a mother who hopes to raise her children within the Orthodox tradition might fret about others looking down on the children as illegitimate because she was still chained to her previous husband at the time she became pregnant.

The task of acquiring a “get” has proved so difficult in certain circumstances that some Orthodox Jewish women have resorted to violence. A pair of Brooklyn rabbis, for example, recently gained notoriety after news reports circulated describing how they made a habit of charging women in need of a “get” $60,000 (including as much as $10,000 for a rabbinical decree permitting violence) to kidnap recalcitrant husbands and beat them into submission. An FBI undercover agent posing as an Orthodox Jewish woman soliciting their services finally landed the men in jail.

A recent survey by The Mellman Group, a national polling research firm, found that between 2005 and 2010, there were more than 460 cases of “shackled” Jewish women in the United States and Canada.

Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a New York-based nonprofit that assists in resolving contested divorces, says that about 150 to 200 women a year come to them for help.

Since the organization’s founding in 2002, it has resolved 212 cases.

“We see the issue of refusing a Jewish divorce as a form of domestic abuse,” Stern said.

A recalcitrant husband may hold the desire for a “get” over the wife’s head, using it as a bargaining chip and demanding money or child custody in return for his permission to end the marriage.

That was the case for a St. Louis-area physician. She was only 25 when after dating for three years, she married a man who was also a doctor and with whom she later had three children. The marriage lasted more than a decade, but slowly, it had begun to dissolve.

“People change, and he became someone who was at first difficult to live with and then mean-spirited,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her children. “There was not physical abuse, but there was just a progressive demeaning, hostile environment in the house.”

Although she was able to gain a civil divorce in 2002, it took four additional years to procure a religious divorce.

“And not allowing me to have a ‘get’ and be able to move on romantically with my life was a way of controlling me and causing me pain,” she said. “And the problem is it doesn’t just cause the wife pain, the children suffer.”

She now regrets not signing a prenuptial agreement with her husband, especially because the method has proven to be effective by most accounts.

Michael Helfand is associate director of the Diane and Guilford Glazer Institute for Jewish Studies at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, Calif., where he specializes in arbitration and constitutional law. He said courts have traditionally ruled that contracts involving a religious dispute stand up in court. It’s an effective way, he says, to get two legal systems — religious and secular — to work together so there’s enforcement power.

Some caution that nuptial agreements function only as Band-Aids.

“It’s better than nothing,” says Susan Aranoff, co-director of Agunah International, a nonprofit based in Brooklyn that helps women win a “get” from their husbands. “It’s a good idea for people to sign it … but the community shouldn’t be misled into thinking that that solves the problem.”

Aranoff and Estelle Freilich, also a director at Agunah International, say that “what is needed is a systemic ‘halaka’ (Jewish law and rituals) solution.”

They argue that according to Jewish law, a wife can be freed from a marriage if she becomes aware of a previously unknown defect in the character of her husband. The problem, they say, is that it’s unclear what kind of circumstances merit an annulment of this kind. But they insist that a husband refusing a divorce deserves this kind of action.

“I don’t think the rabbis really, quote, ‘get it,’” Aranoff said. “You need the woman’s perspective here. Nobody should be able to hold anyone hostage.”

“It’s a political problem,” Freilich added. “These rabbis are afraid of being branded that they’re not religious enough.”

Shafner, of Bais Abraham, says rabbis were not so reluctant to help women in this predicament in the past. In times of war, for example, when husbands went missing but had not been confirmed dead, rabbis “would go to the ends of the earth to free these women,” he said.

“It’s so ironic because it’s 180 degrees today. We’re so afraid that we’re not really willing to really stretch the boundaries of ‘halaka,’ Jewish law, to free her,” Shafner said.

By Lilly Fowler, St. Louis-Dispatch (MCT)

Comments

Be

I have just as many problems with judaism as christianity, but KUDOS to grand haven tribune for posting something OTHER than evangelical christian drivel! Widen the perspective....

BabaYaga

Agree.

LessThanAmused

Oh look....2 spritually enlightened new agers.....you bigots ever hear the tired old saying "live and let live"?

How about If it ain't your cup of tea, then go find something else that is? and if you have, why are you here dissing people who are searching for answers, just like you? Unless of course you already think you have all the answers......

I was raised Catholic and as soon as I got out on my own I put a stop to that foolishness, but that doesn't mean there aren't good people out there who ARE catholic.

I'd be the first one to say that all missionaries should be rounded up and shipped off to the Galapagos where they can do their best to convince the residents there that their way is the only way......

However, there are millions of people out there who have a personal faith, that they use to get thru this life and they're not hurting you or anybody else. So go find something to do positive with your time and quit acting all smug and self-righteous.

In the words of that famous American Rodney King....."can't we all just get along"?

bigdeal

yeah, wth, getting down on those evangelical christians! lmao How dare you like anything other? You freakin new agers! Talk about a bigot!

LessThanAmused

Not sure I understand your response or why you jumped in here when I wasn't addressing you, but I can only assume that A) you didn't read my post entirely, B) didn't understand the point I was trying to make or C) just decided to jump in between the lines and wallow around, making up what you think I meant.

bigdeal

preach it Rev!

Be

Interesting that you're on the attack when all that was said was 'it's nice to see something different'. It's really quite funny and ironic that you can call me a bigot over that small comment.

LessThanAmused

Don't be naive. You know full well that my comments weren't based solely on this ONE incident. Every time there's an article with a religious theme here you are invariably the first one to jump in there and tell us all why you don't believe that froo froo stuff and are so proud of yourself to be so above the need to believe......

If it happened just once I'd leave it alone, but it's all the time. If you were so confident in your own beliefs you wouldn't feel the need to attack others. Your classless remarks regarding my anal regions in another post also plays into my opinion of you and your pathetic need to constantly share your religious stance.

Frankly I don't care what you believe, or don't believe, But I do find it interesting that you're afraid to stand up and let others know where you stand, all the while dissing other folks for doing just that.....

In the name of forum peace though this is the last time I'll allow myself to respond to your drivel.

All Hail Bee!
All Hail Bee!

Ommmmmm

bigdeal

"can't we all just get along". hows that working out for you? Bigot.

Be

You're confused. There's a person with the moniker 'bee' and mine, which is 'be'. Make sure you're attacking the right person. I've seen your 'all hail' thing before under that persons posts.

Again: All I said was I'm sick of only seeing one group represented in the tribune, so it was NICE to see something different. If you want to attack me for that, then whatever.

LessThanAmused

Well, isn't that embarassing. I guess that's what I get for trying to go off memory.

If you Be, and Bee, are in fact two different people, then I am certainly in the wrong and apologise to you, Be. The person who I thought I was talking to, based on previous comments made by that person, was Bee. Obviously I was more than a bit confused and now a bit perturbed I didn't catch my own mistake. One little letter can make a big difference.

So, I apologise. Not the first mistake I've made in my life and I suspect it won't be the last. I'll leave it that and be more careful in the future. Carry on and enjoy the laugh at my expense. I certainly would!

Bee

You are forgiven.

Bee

Be

No forgiveness needed. These forums are lightning rods. I'm never offended. It's always a battle to decide whether one should put ideas 'out there' when it may indeed be egoistic to think that someone may actually learn something from a comment. This is why I generally restrict myself these days to commending articles that I like.

Bee

Correction All Hail BE. I have been no part of your discussion.

Bee

Wrong guy LTA! I don't discuss religion on here.

Be

And religion is the only thing I discuss on here. Everything else is too boring and doesn't get people riled up enough.

Former Grandhavenite

The religious articles that the Trib runs are often pretty interesting to me even as an agnostic. It's nice to see how other people use the framework of their particular religion to help them make decisions, cope with challenges, etc. For many generations my father's, father's, father's etc etc... going back as far as anyone can tell have been pastors or other church officials by profession and training, and reading some of their old sermons and notes in the margins of bibles has been fascinating and helped me understand their passion for the work. I wish I could ask my great, great, great, grandfather what he thinks about my doubts regarding the existence of God and if he felt the same way at times.

While religion isn't my cup of tea personally I think that just by being a central component of so many people's lives it's worth making some effort to understand. It's like, if you're not really into football it's still worth understanding the basics since it's a common denominator in human relations (at least for guys) just because so many other folks ARE into it. It would be cool if the Trib would sometimes run columns from agnostics/atheists describing what, if anything, fills a similar role to religion in their life, what it's like to always hear and see religious references while not being part of it yourself, etc.

Be

Nice. I agree and would gladly contribute an opinion article on my views. Unfortunately, I would have to do it anonymously unless I wanted an end to my career. This area is not kind to those who step out of line in public. If I was in Ann Arbor I'd be fine...

Tri-cities realist

No better time and place than the present. Go for it.

Be

nope... not gonna go that route.

Tri-cities realist

"I agree and would gladly contribute an opinion article on my views."

So you didn't really mean what you said?

Be

You have to read the rest of the paragraph. If I did write my views, anonymity would not be possible.

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