Wednesday, April 07, 2021

A New Path to Help Free the Agunah

Chava Herman (Religion and Politics)
Jewish law is not subject to social media pressure. I don’t think that is arguable. What the Torah tells us to do – or not to do - has nothing to do with how any one of us feels about it. Whether individually or communally.  

That does not however mean that social media does not have a role to play. The fact is that it does. A very big role that can be (and is) used in both positive and negative ways. The latest example of how social media can be used in a positive way is in the case of women whose husbands refuse to give them a Halachic divorce known as a Get. These woman are called Agunos. (Although Agunos are defined somewhat differently in Halacha, they basically suffer the same fate. Agunos may not get married.)

This age old problem is based on the biblical requirement that a husband must willing give his wife a Get before she can get remarried to another man. Without one – she is considered married to her first husband. Marrying another man under these circumstances is a capital offense in Judaism. A child resulting from that relationship is considered a Mamzer who may themselves not marry a Jewish woman or non Jewish woman. The same thing is true for his offspring after him in perpetuity (should he have any). This is pretty serious stuff. And with divorce on the rise in our day, this problem has exploded exponentially. 

Many solutions at resolving this issue have met been met with rejection by Poskim. In some cases those solutions proceeded anyway – being used by misguided rabbis who formed ad hoc religious courts to help desperate Agunos out. But they have only made matters worse by creating a class of women whose children will be suspect – as possible Mamzerim.   

Although some solutions have been successful in preventing a  woman from becoming an Agunah - such as a halachic pre-nuptial agreement - this only helps if it is done prior to the marriage. And not every Posek accepts it (although it does seem to be catching on more than it used to be.)  

In any case, I am not here to evaluate the various novel solutions that have been sought or actually tried. Needless to say, many of them have not produced good results. In some cases those attempting radical solutions using violence against recalcitrant husbands have ended up in prison.  Not to mention the fact that a Get issued by force is not considered Halachicly valid. 

This doesn’t mean we just sit on our hands, do nothing, and say ‘Nebech’. Although a forced Get is invalid, communal pressure may be used to convince a recalcitrant husband that it is in his own best interests to willingly grant his wife a Get. In that vein a Beis Din can issue a Seruv against him  – which is a form of communal isolation. 

Their names are published in religious periodicals as recalcitrant husbands; Shuls are told to shun them; they are not called to the Torah; or allowed to lead the services; or be given any honor.  But as one can imagine, this has met with limited success. Many recalcitrant husbands are so spiteful that they don’t care about a Seruv preferring to ‘torture’ their wives into agreeing to whatever outlandish demands they might make as a condition of a Get. This might involve custody issues or extortions of huge sums of money. 

Perhaps more importantly - the truth is that very few people pay any attention to a  Seruv or may not even know about them.. There has been little else anyone could do about it. Until now. 

This is where social media comes in. As detrimental to one’s spiritual and mental health social media might be  - this is where it can be used for good. Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt makes this point in a recent issue of Religion and Politics.  She tells us the story of Chava Herman. Herman, a mother of two daughters, who had been an Agunah since 2011 when she got her civil divorce. 

Herman messaged an Orthodox 25 year old ‘Social Influencer’ by the name Dalia Oziel who has 34,000 followers on Instagram She asked her to... 

...share a poster calling on her husband to issue a divorce. And so Oziel did, on February 9—with the hashtag, #freechava. 

Within a few weeks, the hashtag would explode into a rallying cry among young Orthodox women demanding their right to divorce, some going as far as demanding transparency and accountability in the Orthodox rabbinical system, with close to 1,500 posts and thousands more stories. Teenagers, housewives, wig-makers, and food bloggers started coming out of the woodwork across Orthodox communities, posting about women’s rights, creating lip-syncing reels, and some even taking to the streets to protest on behalf of Herman and other women…

“The past month the #freechava campaign took off and has quite literally rocked our world,” wrote Dini Weinberg of Monsey, New York, known for her high-end eponymous wig brand, to her 110,000 Instagram followers… 

“It’s gotten us to look around and see the abuse, the inconsistencies, and total falsehood. But it’s also shown us that together, we are unstoppable.”

Indeed it has. There are of course no guarantees. Chizhik does not say whether Chava Herman got her Get. But clearly this kind of massive negative publicity about a recalcitrant husband is a new way to put real pressure on him. Far more effective than the heretofore little publicized Seruv. It will surely move some recalcitrant husbands to give their wives a Get - freeing them from their chains. 

That said, there is always the possibility for abuse - by using these platforms to  perpetuate a false narrative. I would think that the best way to go about it is to get a reputable Beis Din to issue a Seruv first. But one thing seems certain. Social media has given these women a voice they have heretofore never had. If used properly it will hopefully help free a lot of women.