Friday, January 01, 1999

The Agunah Problem

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in 1998)

We know that there are thousands of agunot – Jewish women whose husbands refuse to give them a get or religious divorce – because we have been told so often that there are that many. It matters not at all that there is no scholarly examination of the subject or credible evidence to support the claim. To challenge the figure as unproven or improbable is to risk being charged as anti-feminist and cruel and insensitive to the situation of these chained women.

Just the same, the figure is false, a statistic created out of thin air because it gives greater urgency to the cause and provides ammunition to those who attack Orthodox divorce procedures and, more broadly, Orthodox Judaism.

The notion that there are thousands of agunot in the U.S. crosses the boundary from improbability to impossibility when we consider the small number of Orthodox Jews in this country. I will not go into the entire calculation here, except to say that its components include the number of children in Orthodox families, the high percentage of Orthodox who are elderly and the low divorce rate among religious Jews. While the rate has been rising, it remains significantly below what it is in the general society and among other Jews.

Perhaps the most celebrated agunah case in recent years concerns a woman whose story was widely reported in the media, general and Jewish, including this newspaper. Not long ago she wrote to me expressing gratitude for the help that I gave her. Although it is contrary to my practice, I quote some of her words because it is unfortunately necessary these days to state that my view that the agunah statistics being unreliable does not arise from insensitivity toward agunot.
She writes, “There are not enough words that I can say that would express my gratitude to you. For a person to help someone they have never met and to care is really overwhelming to us.”

Many in the Orthodox community – men and women – have done far more than I have, which is one reason why I believe that in most Orthodox homes experiencing marital breakdown, the situation is quite a bit better than it is elsewhere. The divorce process is usually expeditious and the costs, financial and emotional, are lower because there are caring people who intervene to bring about a fair resolution to an unhappy situation.

These efforts fail at times and then the get issue is entwined in a protracted battle that can encompass finances, children and whatever else is brought into the fray by one or the other parties. It is true that the husband may use the get as a weapon, which is an unpardonable sin. (Although it is a far less frequent occurrence, the wife can also use the get as a weapon.) But it is also true that without the get, there is often delay, unreasonable demands, nasty tactics, as domestic disputes turn into mini-wars with no holds barred.

In Orthodox marital disputes, the tendency of outsiders is to focus on the get and to pay scant heed to other matters that may feed the conflict, even though these other matters may be quite substantial and certainly important to the parties.

All of this is elementary or should be, yet it makes no appearance in the discussion of the agunah problem. There is no pretense of scholarship, as polemics hold sway and the Orthodox are pummeled once more. This is in line with the prevailing motif in American Jewish life as serious scholarship about the Orthodox is replaced by pop sociology which has an ax to grind. With few exceptions, statistical validity, sociological insight and historical accuracy are abandoned in service to the powerful impulse to bash the Orthodox.

An interesting example of the genre is provided in the vastly overrated documentary on Chassidic life, “A World Apart.” There are on-screen comments by academics who know not of what they speak. One scholar says that as late as 1939, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzienski, the saintly leader of East European Jewry, urged Jews not to emigrate to the United States. The comment struck me as implausible in view of American immigration policy at the time and what I know of Rabbi Grodzienski, specifically the searingly poignant introduction to the third volume of his responsa that was written virtually on the eve of the Holocaust, on 3 Nissan 5699, March 23, 1939. There is nothing in this document to support the assertion made by this scholar. Months ago I wrote to him and asked for the source. A response has not arrived, I believe because the source does not exist.

In the same film, there is an astonishing comment by another academic describing how young Chassidic men learn about the sexual act before they marry. I do not know whether to characterize this comment as tawdry or dumb or offensive. Probably, it is all three.

The same fellow makes an appearance in the latest study of Conservative Jewry in an essay on children in two Conservative synagogues. He tells of a “Teen Shabbat” which featured a speech, quoted at length, given by a young woman who in her freshman high school year enrolled in an Orthodox yeshiva. She describes how she “was faced with a new life-style, one that I had never before explored. The first few months of that year were strange for me. I was taught to pray differently, dress differently and open my mind to new possibilities. And this is where my inner conflict began.”

She continues: “I remember one day I spent an entire morning in my rebbe’s office, crying. I was so confused and did not know how to deal with my frustration. I felt as though I was living inconsistently. For nearly nine hours every day, I would go to school to learn and act like an Orthodox Jew. However, when I would return home at the end of the day, I had to switch gears once again and resume my usual life-style. As I utilized an entire box of tissues, I told my rebbe about this conflict I was facing. And the entire time I spoke, he just sat there, listening, with a subtle smile stretched across his face. Then he began to speak, and the words that followed were ones that will remain with me for the rest of my life. ‘Elisheva,’ he said ‘nothing is wrong with you. In fact, this is a very good thing. You have shown me that you are thinking, something most kids your age do not know how to do.’ ”

And how does the scholar interpret these remarks and that of another student? “Because the high school is under Orthodox auspices and the teachers are Orthodox, what the students revealed in their remarks about Conservative Judaism they learned from their families, congregational life and primary school – not from high school.”

And what about the words of the rebbe “that will remain with me for the rest of my life”?

What we are facing is a syndrome of pseudo-scholarship, which accords with too much of what is happening elsewhere in American Jewish life, particularly in American Jewish journalism.