Being that one of the mitzvot in this weeks parsha is about divorce, I happened to see a few divrei torah related to the subject of divorce and agunot. Below is a dvar torah from Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale that I think gives a short history as to why we have the problem of agunot nowadays. This ties in very nicely with Jameel's post the other day.
RABBI AVI WEISS Shabbat Forshpeis
This week's portion touches upon the controversial issue of spouses who refuse to grant a Jewish divorce (get).
The Torah states "and he [the husband] shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hands" (Deuteronomy 24:1). In other words, the giving of a get is the husband's exclusive domain. While it is difficult to pinpoint why the Torah so decreed, it could be suggested that since women in biblical times found it difficult and even impossible to fend for themselves socio-economically, they would never desire a get. Yet, as pointed out to me by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the pendulum swung as time went on.
The unilateral right of the husband to divorce his wife was limited by the advent of the ketubah (marital contract) which details the many obligations that a husband has to his wife, including an amount of money that his wife would receive in case of divorce. In this way, a husband's absolute power to divorce his wife was severely restricted through this financial obligation.
The unilateral power of the husband to give the get totally disappeared one thousand years ago when Rabbenu Gershom declared that a get could not be given without the wife's consent. If the ketubah made it difficult for a husband to unilaterally divorce his wife, Rabbenu Gershom obviated that unilateral power in its entirety. The get became a bilateral process rather than a unilateral one.
With time, the get process entered yet a different stage, a stage in which women could initiate a get. In the middle ages, for example, central communities in Europe were governed by the Va'ad Arba Aratzot, the committee of the four major Jewish population centers. Jews there had their own political sovereignty and judicial autonomy. If the bet din found a wife's claim reason for divorce, it was powerful enough to order the husband to give the get. As long as the bet din was strong enough, the agunah matter was resolved.
The situation here in the United States is different. Because of the principle of separation of Church and State, the bet din has no legal power to implement its decisions. This has created a situation where a husband could blackmail his wife by demanding exorbitant sums of money or custody of their child(ren) before giving his wife a get, even when the bet din believes the get should be issued.
While America has seen an unprecedented amount of Jewish life and activity, it has not reached the level of the Va'ad Arba Aratzot. Both the leadership and the people are at fault. The population refuses to submit to the will of the Bet Din, and the Bet Din has not worked hard enough to earn the respect its constituents. Until this vicious circle is broken, the agunah problem, a problem that has been successfully addressed in the past, will remain one of the most painful issues we face today. © 2008 Hebrew Institute of Riverdale & CJC-AMCHA. Rabbi Avi Weiss is Founder and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Open Orthodox Rabbinical School, and Senior Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
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