The emancipation of the Jews in Europe has totally changed their status and their lives. Before that, they were non-citizens, invited to live in a certain city or kingdom at the request of the local ruler, with their status subject to change overnight, by the whim of a decree. To reside in a certain location, Jews had to be members of the local Jewish community, which had the power to revoke residency status and had an independent legal system headed by the local rabbi.
Emancipation changed all that. Jews became ordinary citizens, subject to the secular legal systems of the lands on which they resided. Membership in a Jewish community became a voluntary enterprise, and the rabbi had no legal jurisdiction over the Jews in his town.
However, as with everything good, there was collateral damage with this change. According to Jewish law, a woman can only divorce her husband with her full consent, although in some cases the rabbinical court has the right to require the husband to issue a divorce law. The problem is, while the rabbinical courts issued such decrees, there was no way to enforce them, since community membership was optional.
The problem of women in chains – agunot – was probably the worst at the beginning of the last century, at a time when many men left their wives in Poland and Russia to seek their fortunes in the United States. Bertha Pappenheim, president of the Union of Jewish Women of Germany, spoke at the time of 20,000 agunot.
It is important to note that historically and in rabbinical literature, the term agunah was used in a different context, for women whose husbands had disappeared and where it was not known where they were. Yiddish writer Chaim Grade wrote a famous novel called “Di Agune”, describing such a case in Lithuania at the beginning of the last century.
However, in our context, husbands are very lively and visible, they just don’t want to issue a to have, or an act of divorce, to their chained wives. It is only in Israel, where personal status is decided by religious courts, that courts have the power to use various sanctions, including imprisonment, to convince recalcitrant husbands to release their wives. In the diaspora, the courts are almost powerless.
I announced at our convention in Berlin in 2013 that the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) would develop a multi-pronged approach to help the agunot among us.
The first step is the law, which was originally passed in Israel in 2018 as an interim law to extend the jurisdiction of Israeli rabbinical courts to agunot cases of non-Israelis. This idea is based on the premise that every European Jew has at least one relative in Israel and believes that as anti-Semitism increases in Europe, the time may come when European Jews need to take refuge there. The idea that a recalcitrant husband, for example, could be arrested at the border entering or leaving Israel is a major deterrent to obtaining a refusal, and has forced many recalcitrant husbands to comply with a summons from a rabbinical court outside Israel and to release their wives. In the three years of this law’s existence, more than 80 cases of agunot have been resolved. This week, the Knesset unanimously reinstated the law as permanent law.
The second initiative was created in Amsterdam. CER founded the Special European Rabbinical Court for Agunot, under the leadership of Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag. The authority of this court has been recognized by the Dutch Supreme Court, allowing it to impose fines of up to 100,000 euros to force recalcitrant husbands across Europe to release their wives.
The third approach has been mainly in practice in the United States, namely, the use of prenuptial agreements between couples. The CER has adopted one of the versions of the prenuptial agreements, agreeable to the halachic authorities of our time. However, due to the different legal systems in European countries, creating a European-wide halachic marriage contract has been a challenge.
The fourth measure is the most traditional: use our communal structures to prohibit recalcitrant husbands from being admitted to communal institutions or from receiving services, until they have released their wives. The problem with this approach is that it only has teeth when the aforementioned husband is interested in using these services.
None of the above remedies for agunot are foolproof or complete, but in total I think we have the means to resolve the vast majority of cases in Europe which would reduce the total number of agunot there- low 80-90%.
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt is Chief Rabbi of Moscow, a post he has held since 1993. In 2011, he also became President of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER).