By Rivka Haut
In May of 2001 my husband, Rabbi Yitzchak Haut, passed away. He had devoted much energy to alleviating the agunah situation, and following his death I decided to keep up with my own efforts on behalf of agunot. In years past, during the summer months I have allowed a get organization to use my phone number as their hotline. Always, the issues have been few and not difficult. This summer was different. My phone was ringing often – too often.
The first call I received was from a woman I had tried to help before. Rachel* was married and divorced in Russia. When her husband refused to grant a get, she went to the only rabbi in her town for help. The “get” document the rabbi issued her is clearly not halakhic, as it states that the get is dependent upon the civil divorce. On the basis of this get the rabbi performed her remarriage, from which she now has children. When Rachel and her husband moved to a religious community in New York, a rabbi began questioning her get and, along with it, the status of her children, who could be considered mamzerim (bastards).
Years earlier I tried bringing Rachel to various rabbis, who all declared the get invalid. One rabbi made some attempts to help, but gave up after a few months. This time, I accompanied Rachel to a meeting at an established beit din. The rabbis said they felt they could remedy the situation. The summer passed and we heard nothing. I contacted the beit din and was told, by a most sympathetic wife of one of the rabbis, to be patient. The rabbis are trying their best, she said, but it takes time. A few months ago, the beit din referred Rachel to another beit din, whose rabbi is genuinely trying to help. In the meantime, Rachel is becoming more involved in the religious community and is greatly concerned that questions may arise regarding her children’s status. Months later, Rachel’s case is still unresolved.
Another call this summer came from a woman who informed me that she had been unable to obtain a get for six years and was planning to remarry at summer’s end. Her first husband abandoned her and their children and was currently living in a religious community in Israel. I thought that since the husband lived in a place where pressure could be brought to bear on him he would grant the get. I was wrong.
I referred Leah to a beit din that had contact with Israeli rabbis. I assumed this case would be quickly resolved; there was the entire summer to work this out. After a few weeks , Leah called and said she had heard nothing further and now the rabbi was on vacation. The rabbi had made efforts on her behalf, but the get was still not granted.
With Leah’s permission, I turned to the Internet, to the Women’s Tefillah Network email list. I asked that rabbis in Israel place calls to the rabbi of the community where the recalcitrant lives. The list quickly responded; rabbis from the United States as well as people from Israel placed calls to the rabbi. A to’enet rabbanit was enlisted to help.
Finally, days before her remarriage Leah told me she is giving up. The rabbi of her husband’s community said he had tried his best, but was afraid of her ex-husband, whom he deemed “violent.” Her ex-husband put a price on the get – a stay with him in Israel when the children reach a certain age. Leah said she could not possibly send her children to stay with an abusive man who had not contacted them in six years, nor provided financial support. Leah felt she had tried, could not succeed, and with the help of a non-Orthodox rabbi she remarried. She is young enough to have more children. Aware of questions that may arise regarding their status, she had desperately tried for a get, but was unwilling to put her life on indefinite hold. Can any of us blame her?
The agunah’s plight results not from an act of God, but from the weakness and inaction of the Orthodox rabbinate, which has not removed the ability of recalcitrant spouses to bind their former wives to them with chains of spite and hatred. With each unresolved case, issues of mamzerut increase and will no doubt haunt us in the future. How long will we allow women and children to languish while we “try our best”?
*All names in this article have been changed to protect privacy.
Rivka Haut, co-editor of Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, is an agunah activist. She is the current director of the JOFA Agunah Task Force.