The Agunah Issue Goes Mainstream

Thu, 12/06/2012 - 9:45am -- JOFA

By Elana Sztokman

I was excited to participate last week in a colloquium of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) on the subject of “The Chief Rabbinate and Israel-Diaspora Relations” because it marked a very important moment for women advancing social change in Israel. The colloquium, organized by Dr. Steven Bayme, brought together some 50 leaders of Jewish organizations from Israel and America to discuss the impact of the state rabbinical institutions on Jewish identity in Israel and America. The event was not only a welcome opportunity to engage with top Jewish minds on topics of great interest, but more importantly signaled an important stage of development in the impact of so-called “women’s issues” on Jewish discourse at large. It was a moment, I believe, when we can say that the agunah issue has gone mainstream.

The discussions, which revolved around the question of whether Israel needs or ought to have a central rabbinic institution such as the Rabbinical Court and the Chief Rabbinate or whether it should be replaced with an alternative system, gave due attention to the many abuses that take place in the current system. Significantly, the main issues at hand were conversion and divorce, both of which are gendered processes in which women are disproportionately affected in some terribly adverse ways.

The agunah issue, which the founders of JOFA and other groups have been talking about for decades, is the result of the severe gender imbalance in exit power in Jewish marriage. Women denied divorce can become indefinitely stuck in unwanted marriages with no outlet, and women’s groups have been calling for reforms of the system for a very long time.  Men have ways around the system – the “heter 100 rabbanim”, for example, which allows men tohalakhically evade the system – but women do not. Women who choose to ignore the system relegate their future children to the status of mamzerim, perpetually outside of the Jewish community.

Conversion also disproportionately affects women, who are the overwhelming majority of those seeking conversion in Israel. Moreover, when it comes to intermarriage, pressure is unduly placed on women to convert due to the principle of matrilineal descent. More recently, the abuse of women at the hands of the rabbinical court system has conflated with the courts’ seizure of control over women’s conversions as well. Two years ago, I worked with Susan Weiss of the Center for Women’s Justice on a booklet that explains the shocking story of one woman who underwent a tortuous ordeal when the rabbinical court overturned her conversion while she was trying to get divorced. You can read the horrific story here.  

It is impossible to fully address the abuses of the rabbinical court system without first understanding the gender dynamics involved. This is a system in which women are not allowed to be judges or witnesses, and therefore have no power and no voice. Calls to replace this system with another gendered system in which women still have no power or voice are ineffective. Reform of the system must include a systemic approach to the inherent gender imbalance that causes so much needless suffering to women.

Kudos to Dr. Bayme and to his entire team – including former JOFA Campus Fellow Sara Aeder who helped put this event together. The Jewish community needs more forward thinking leaders like Dr. Bayme to push these vital issues forward and help build a more compassionate, fair and equitable Jewish world.


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