Agunot: Jewish “chained” wives
Övgü Pınar - 19/03/2014
Thousands of orthodox Jewish women are trapped in marriages that have practically ended. “Agunot” (“chained women” in Hebrew) are forbidden from remarrying or even dating another man until their husbands hand them a “get”, the Jewish bill of divorce.
Historically the word “agunah” (singular of agunot), was used for a woman whose husband was lost, in a war, in the sea etc. These women weren’t free to get married again as they couldn’t receive a “get” certificate from their husbands. However today the term mostly refers to women whose husbands refuse to set them free, even though they may be living apart since years.
The case of the agunot came under international limelight mostly because of husbands extorting their wives in order to give them the divorce consent.
One of the agunot that has decided to tell the world about her ordeal after struggling in vain to convince her husband to “let her go” for years was Gital Dodelson. Dodelson, who lives in New Jersey, USA, got married to Avrohom Meir Weiss after meeting him through a matchmaker, a traditional way of meeting one’s future spouse in the Jewish community she belongs. She told her story to New York Post last November:
“When I first met Avrohom in October 2008, I thought he was great husband material. That’s what my parents and friends told me. After all, in my society you’re expected to listen to them on these matters. After two months of dating — about twice a week, every week, first sharing sodas in hotel lobbies, then graduating to dinner and visits to the Museum of Natural History — we both knew we were expected to take the next step of getting engaged. The engagement period in our community, like our dating, is very short. Before I knew it, the big day arrived. But only three days into the marriage, I knew I made a terrible mistake.
I got pregnant right away. As a Torah-observant man, Avrohom would study in the yeshiva all day while I was in school or working at my mom’s technology company. I was the sole breadwinner, but he had control over our finances. Several times he would give handouts to his brother, who was unemployed. “Why are you giving away the money that I earned?” I asked Avrohom one day. “You don’t get to make the decisions,” he replied, adding that I’m stupid. “I’m the man of the house”. His controlling and belittling behavior only got worse.
While he agreed to a divorce in the civil courts, he still holds the trump card. He will not sign the “get,” the all-important bill of divorce which is recognized by halacha (Jewish law). Civil law governs the legal aspects of life, but under the eyes of God — and everyone who’s important to me — I’m still married to Avrohom. On paper, I am a free woman. But this means nothing in halacha, and I’m still imprisoned by my husband to this day. On my last mission to ask for a get, a month ago, Avrohom said, “I can’t give you a get — how else would I control you?”
One proposal his side put forward in January was for me to agree to override the court decision on custody of Aryeh and hand over a payment of $350,000. There’s no way I can afford that.”
After the article on New York Post, Dodelson received support from more and more organizations and individuals. A Facebook group named “Free Gital” grew to 14.000 users worldwide. After her private fight became public, her husband finally agreed to give her the “get” last month.
A form of domestic abuse
New York-based nonprofit Organization for the Resolution of Agunot’s (ORA) director Rabbi Jeremy Stern says “The refusal to issue a get is never justified and is defined in Jewish law as domestic abuse. It’s the last form of control the husband has over his wife. The mentality is, ‘If I can’t have her, no one can.’ It’s fundamentally about control and spite.”
ORA has resolved 205 cases since 2002. Although there are also cases of “agunim”(a man whose wife refuses to receive a “get”), in the overwhelming majority of cases of get-refusal, it is the husband who refuses to issue a divorce permission.
One of the current cases that ORA is working on involves a man who refuses to issue a “get” to his wife for over 9 years. The husband Israel Meir Kin intends to marry an additional wife in Las Vegas, while continuing to hold his wife Lonna hostage by refusing to issue her a valid and unconditional get. A website named “www.FreeLonna.org” is created to highlight the case and to raise awareness against the injustice that Lonna and many other orthodox Jewish women still suffer.
There are estimated to be thousands of such women “imprisoned in a marriage”. The International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) has declared the Fast of Esther (13 in Adar) as International Agunah Day. This year the date fell on March 13. The organizers held meetings in the Israeli Parliament on the issue.
ICAR says, its goal is to “bring about a situation in which no woman is trapped in the confines of marriage against her will and that no woman should have to pay for her freedom”.