International Agunah Day, marked last week, was created about a decade ago to publicize the plight of Jewish women whose estranged spouses refuse to provide a get, or divorce declaration. A wife in this situation is called an agunah, or “chained” woman, and her existence is as chained to her recalcitrant spouse as if she were wearing physical manacles.
The situation is rooted in traditional Jewish law, which says a woman cannot change her status from “married” except with proof of her husband’s death, if he is missing or with the delivery to her of a get by her estranged husband. Because of their strict interpretation of Jewish law, Orthodox communities are the ones beset by the creation of agunot. In Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate is the state-sanctioned authority over personal status matters such as marriage and divorce, 75 percent of the public wants such power out of the rabbinate’s hands.
The problem of agunot is a women’s issue, but it is more than that. It is an Orthodox issue, but it is more than that. It is an Israeli issue, but it is more than that. It is an issue that concerns the whole Jewish community, because there is an injustice in denying a person her autonomy and preventing her from rebuilding her life.
There have been steps forward. International Agunah Day and other efforts have publicized the agunah problem and the existence of chained women. Many American Orthodox authorities have encouraged couples to sign prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements that contain provisions that significantly limit the possibility of a wife becoming an agunah. And while there is no data to show how far this innovation is spreading, we hope it will become the norm in communities that bind themselves to Jewish law.
International Agunah Day was observed on the same day as the Fast of Esther, on the day before Purim. The parallels between agunot and the story of Esther are inexact. But Esther’s story does bring the perils of an individual Jewish woman into stark relief. And that is what an agunah is: an imperiled Jewish woman who is chained and — until we fix the problem — on her own.