The Hebrew word “agun” means an anchor, and it is an apt word to describe the status of a Jewish woman who does not get a religious writ of divorce, a get, and is thereby not allowed to remarry in Jewish law. An aguna is anchored to a situation that presents an emotional impasse in her life while the ex-husband can, under certain circumstances, even remarry. He has almost exclusive control of the outcome while she does not. It is an ancient legal inequity that is difficult but not impossible to redress for those who take Jewish law seriously.
The issue has come to public attention many months ago because Aharon Friedman, a 34-year-old majority tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, is an Orthodox Jew who is refusing to give his ex-wife, Tamar Epstein, a get. The controversy has been covered in a NY Times article (January 4, 2011), has made its way with cyber-speed around the blogosphere and has prompted letters to the Committee Chairman, Rep. David Camp (R - Michigan) to put additional pressure on Mr. Friedman to grant his ex-wife a divorce. Public shame is being used to leverage Mr. Friedman to take action. As of this writing, Tamar has been an aguna for 1285 days.
Public shame becomes the last resort when the law falls short in practice. In this instance, there has been a great deal of criticism of the rabbinic courts in Baltimore and in Greater Washington for not working more quickly and effectively to put an end to this case. A group of women were so outraged that they wanted to picket the offices of the Washington Rabbinical Council with signs “We Are All Tamar.” Recently, a group of well-known rabbis have issued a “siruv” or official complaint
On the one hand, Tamar is Tamar. She is a 28 year old attractive woman with a young daughter and a life ahead of her. In speaking at a protest conducted outside of Mr. Friedman’s apartment building, Tamar was encouraged to speak publicly. She thanked the hundreds of people who showed up, and asked patiently and respectfully for her freedom. Standing to her side and behind her were her mother and her sisters, embracing other women and thanking the men who came to show Tamar that she was not alone. Tamar’s mother, Cheryl Epstein, described the ordeal as particularly painful for Tamar because, “She is a person who detests conflict and avoids the limelight. She is a peace maker and fighting is antithetical to her nature.”
On the other hand, every Jewish woman who observes Jewish law can potentially become Tamar if stuck in a similar situation. An agunah who attended the rally to support Tamar said that she had already given up on herself. The rabbis in this case have no grounds to claim that the couple may get back together for the sake of the marriage or the child since the couple is already civilly divorced. Some of the most prominent rabbinic minds in this country have said that if a civil divorce is already in place, there is absolutely no excuse, other than a moral hijack, to withhold a get. In the words of a prominent Washington lawyer who is involved in the case: “The Jewish law is clear: Where the parties are living apart, a decree of divorce has been entered, and all property and custody issues have been resolved, (whether or not to the satisfaction of both parties) the man must deliver a get.”
Some mistakenly believe that the get is being withheld because Tamar is denying her ex-husband certain visitation rights. ORA (The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) has invested thousands of hours in this case and believes that Tamar is showing flexibility in working out custody issues while Aharon is not. In the words of Jeremy Stern, executive director of ORA, “A get must never - under any possible circumstances - be used as leverage to negotiate the contentious issues of a divorce settlement.”
There is great danger in using public shame because it brings the whole injustice of the agunah case to the general public for scrutiny. Judaism appears to the rest of the world and to many of its adherents as a malicious, misogynistic system. When a religious document becomes a sword in the hand of an abuser, then not only do women suffer, faith suffers. The Judaism of immense wisdom, compassion and justice is tarnished. But it is not primarily the faith that looks bad, it is the rabbinic leadership who are unwilling to craft a solution who look bad.
The International Coalition for Agunah Rights (ICAR) created a communal prayer for the agunah which concludes with the Hebrew blessing said each morning in the traditional service. “Blessed be He who frees those who are imprisoned.” That prayer petitions not only the recalcitrant husband to do the right thing but begs the rabbis to do so as well: “Grant wisdom to the judges of Israel. Teach them to recognize oppression and rule against it. Infuse our rabbis with courage to use their power for good alone.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom in DC, wrote on his blog, “I have been a rabbi long enough to know that when a contested divorce is taking place there are at a minimum two different sides to the story. But when either party withholds a get and uses that as leverage, then until that matter is settled there is only one side. Period…Just as we would not tolerate physical coercion, we cannot tolerate emotional coercion.”
If Jewish observance hurts women, then why stick around? Yet you almost never hear an Orthodox woman say that she is leaving. Why? They find that their way of life is one of beauty and everyday holiness. They may be technically “chained” to their husbands, but they are held by stronger bonds to their Judaism.
Feminists often miss this point about religion generally. Tova Hartman, an Israeli academician, observes that the religious spirit is “constituted by a lived experience of a dense network of relationships - with community, with history, with liturgy, and with God. Thus it also resists the kind of analytical deconstruction that certain feminist theories have offered.” Hartman believes that feminism has “not thus far offered a positive spiritual framework that stands up against the richly textured experience of religious life.”Another famous Orthodox feminist, Blu Greenberg, wrote that she has come to live with conflict. “I have come to realize that the conflict is a sign of my health, not of my confusion; the tension is a measure of the richness of my life, not of its disorderliness.”
In Tamar’s own words, “Judaism is so much a part of who I am and throughout this difficult process, if anything, my faith in God and in my religion has been reaffirmed. Aharon has hurt me in many ways, but I’m not going to allow him to take my faith away from me.”
Tamar and hundreds of women like her will live bounded by law and not walk away from Judaism because their love of Judaism is stronger than their despair or their anger. That love must be reciprocated by justice. Justice requires unchaining Tamar and all agunot. In this week of freedom, we need to remember women like Tamar. In the words of the prayer for the agunah: “Liberate your faithful daughters from their anguish. Enable them to establish new homes and raise up children in peace.” And let us say Amen.
Erica Brown | Oct 5, 2011 4:43 PM