International Agunah Day in the Israeli Knesset

ICAR, the International Coalition for Agunah Rights, has declared Ta’anit Esther as International Agunah Day, and encourages communities to organize educational and advocacy programs about agunot on this day. Click here and here for programming and advocacy suggestions.

The following is an explanation of the connection between Agunah Day and Ta'anit Esther, authored by Rachel Levmore, which accompanied proposed legislation to mark "Agunah Day" in the Israeli Knesset, presented by ICAR.

"Agunah Day in the Israeli Knesset"
by Rachel Levmore 

Awareness of the woman known as the agunah has existed for thousands of years. She is the woman whose husband’s whereabouts is unknown, and there is no proof of his demise. According to Jewish law a woman cannot change her status from a "married woman" to a "widow," without absolute proof of his demise, or to being a "divorcee" without the consent of her husband. Since the proclamation of the State of Israel the agunah took on another dimension – that of the woman denied a divorce.

Today, most agunot are women who have severed all relations with their partners – emotional, economical and physical.  Nevertheless they have not succeeded in ending their marriages in divorce, according to the laws of Israel. The husband, whether he is physically present or has abandoned the family, refuses to divorce his wife according to Jewish law. This woman--the agunah – remains with the status of a "married woman" and cannot legally marry again and rebuild her life. Thus the agunah is imprisoned in the marriage against her will.

Every year, for more than a decade, throughout the Jewish world, "International Agunah Day" is observed on the Jewish calendar date of the Fast of Esther. Most years it is the 13th day of Adar. On leap years it is on the 13th day of Adar Bet.In the years that we observe an early Fast Day, such as 5771, the fast is on the 11th day of the month of Adar. This special day has been chosen to symbolize our identification with the agunah for two contrasting reasons –due to calamity and due to salvation.

According to Jewish tradition, Megillat Esther is included in the religious canon of books. It is counted as one of the holy books of the Bible (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 7a). The Megilla relates how around the 4th Century BCE the ruler of Persia and Media – Ahasuerus – sought a new queen from among “all the beautiful young maidens” (Esther 2:3). The Fast of Esther commemorates Esther, the cousin of a Jew of distinguished lineage called Mordechai.  This same Esther married King Ahasueras even though she didn’t want to enter into the marriage (Talmud Bavli , Sanhedrin 74b, Tosefot 71b based on Megilla 13b). “Esther was taken to King Ahasueras into his palace” (Esther 2:16). She was brought there against her will. And so, Esther found favor in the eyes of the king and he crowned her his queen. “He set the royal crown upon her head” (Esther 2:17). Although she was the queen, Esther lived in fear, hiding her personal background, as explained in Yalkut Shimoni (Esther 247): "And why was she called Esther?  Because she hid her personal self " (the root of her name connotes hiding).

Like Esther, the agunot of the present era do not want to be in the marriage in which they find themselves. Like Esther, many women who are refused a get live in fear of their spouses and live a double life. Like Esther, the agunah, a victim of get-refusal finds herself lacking control of her own freedom.

However when Esther is called upon by Mordechai to find a way to save her people, she instructs him “Go, assemble all the Jews found in Shushan and fast for me.  Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day…..then I will go in to the King although it is unlawful, and if I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16). Esther rises to the occasion and takes upon herself the burden of leadership, even though it may come at a high personal cost. In proclaiming the “Fast of Esther” she put emphasis on assembling the entire nation in her efforts to save them. Esther realized that in the unity of the people lies their strength.

In this manner all who concern themselves with having a just, stable Jewish society rise to the challenge. "Agunah Day" symbolizes awareness of the general public.  It serves as a rallying cry among the people calling for the eradication of this destructive phenomenon in a healthy, balanced society. In proclaiming "Agunah Day" by the Israeli Knesset the people come together to declare that the abandonment of a wife or the refusal of a get is not tolerated in the State of Israel.

At the end of Megillat Esther, the act of remembrance is emphasized: "Then Queen Esther, daughter of Avihail, and Mordechai the Jew, wrote with full authority … and the ordinance of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim, and it was recorded in the book" (Esther 9:29-32). Moreover, in the Talmud Esther's request to be remembered by future generations through the inclusion of her story in the Book of Books is emphasized: "Esther sent to the sages: Record me for all the generations … Inscribe me for all the generations" (Talmud Bavli, Megilla 7a). The proclamation and the inscription in the Book of Laws are the acts which bring about remembrance and the learning of the lesson. With Queen Esther’s insight every agunah in Israel calls out: “Go, assemble all the members of the Knesset and mark Agunah Day, thus I can attain freedom in keeping with the laws of Moses and Israel." 

 

Rabbinical Court Advocate Rachel Levmore is the Coordinator for Matters of Iggun and Get-Refusal for the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency; a member of ICAR; author of "Min'ee Einayikh Me'Dimah: Heskemei Kdam Nissuin LeMeniat Seiruv Get", Mosdot Ariel & CYIR, Jerusalem 2009; a Doctoral Fellow in the Talmud Department of Bar Ilan University. 

The document was translated from the original bill by Shoshana Tessler.