Former Shalich in Manhattan
On reading the Torah over the past few weeks, we witness the transition that our forefather, Yaakov, and his family have been going through. A small family numbering seventy members entered the land of Egypt due to a severe famine in the land of Israel, and was greeted with extreme warmth. They now numbered hundreds of thousands. Yaakov’s family has grown from a small family into a nation – The Nation of the People of Israel. We also have learned of the tremendous stress they suffered as a result of the hard physical labor they were required to perform for the Egyptian Pharaoh.
The redemption, as promised to Avraham at The Covenant between the Parts, came only many years later. In this week’s parashah – Parashat Bo, the Nation of Israel finally take their first steps as an independent nation after the ten plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptians.
The Exodus of Bnei Yisrael from Egypt was an unforgettable moment indicating the transition from slavery to freedom, an event that the sages in Tractate Berachot (12:B) have required us to mention day and night as we recite Keriat Shema both in the morning and evening prayers. Further more, we have different Mitzvot that we practice so that we shall never forget the redemption. We put on Tefillin every morning in memory of the Exodus, and for that same reason we affix a Mezuzah to our doorpost. In addition, we are required to fulfill the mitzvah of Brit Milah and to celebrate Pesach. The common basis of these Mitzvot is that they resemble the Jewish home. Sure enough their object is to remind us of the freedom that the Jewish people have gained as a result of the exodus. The Jewish home has become a symbol of freedom as we are obligated to teach and remind our children of this important event.
Freedom is a fundamental attribute that a person carries with him as he forms a family and builds a home. When one accomplishes the fulfillment of the sages desire, our Jewish home becomes indicative of the day we became independent.
Painfully said, some marriages end in a divorce of the husband and wife. The Torah, in Seifer Devarim (24:10) mentions this complex situation and acknowledges it, requiring the delivery of a Get, a letter of release, in order to bring the marriage to an official termination. Based on this very Pasuk, the Rambam in the laws regarding divorce mentions in its first halacha that a divorce can become official only by giving a Get. The Gemarah in Tractate Gittin (90:B) described that in an incident of this kind “The Alter of God sheds tears for him”.
The Mishnah in Tractate Gittin (9:10) quotes the opinions of Beit Shamai, Beit Hillel and R’ Akiva regarding the permission a husband has, to give a Get to his wife. Even the most lenient of these opinions believes that a woman may be divorced against her own will, leaving no room for her desire.
The halachik ease of giving a Get brought R’ Shimon Ben Shatach in Tractate Shabbat (14:B) to introduce the Ketubah into the marriage ceremony as cause of intimidation to husbands thinking they may divorce their wives in a simple manner. However, it seems that husbands were not intimidated enough by the monetary requirement of a Ketubah. Rabeinu Gershom (lived in the 11th century) was forced to institute new rules requiring the woman’s consent in order to obtain a Get according to halacha.
Unfortunately, a halachik solution was never found for cases in which husbands never came back from their travels or from war. Their women found themselves without a husband and unable to remarry, classically referred to in halacha as an Aguna, a chained woman. The classic case of an aguna can now be found in instances where the couple’s marriage has come to an end, but the husband is still unwilling to deliver a Get to his wife. Using the foundation of the Jewish home mentioned above, the home that is a symbol of freedom, becomes the exact opposite for a woman trying to obtain a Get. The woman finds herself chained to her marriage with no option of remarrying again. Any marriage and birth of children would render those children as Mamzerim and would exclude them from the Jewish world, prohibiting them from marrying another Jew.
The Rambam in the laws regarding divorce (1:23) alongside many other poskim discussed the state of the Aguna, stating that one must be as lenient as possible when dealing with cases of this type. In severe situations when a husband does not comply with the Beit Din’s request to deliver a Get to his wife, permission has been granted to the Beit Din to coerce the husband into doing so.
In contrast to the license given in these severe situations, we find that a Get delivered due to unlawful coercion is invalid. Many rabbinical judges are concerned that permitting coercion will invalidate such a Get known as a ‘Get Meuseh’, and therefore avoid ruling to coerce the husband.
While different solutions in accordance with halacha have been suggested, the rabbinical judges have refrained from using them. The situation is the Israeli Beit Din might be more critical, but Batei Din in other countries are faced with similar problems. Over the past few years much literature has been written trying to convince the rabbinical judges to comply with the Rambam’s desire that one must be lenient with Agunot, but a magical solution has yet to be found.
Several states across the U.S. have issued civil laws regarding these matters, all still in argument as to their halachik validity. Other countries have involved the civil courts too in effort to find an answer to this topic.
The solution lies among the people – reading the parasha this week and seeing our forefathers fight for freedom should strengthen us to take a stand and convince the rabbinical judges around the world that a halachik solution must be found for those women still striving for their freedom.