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September 7th, 2023

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In an era where the fight for women’s rights often intersects with religious freedoms, this week’s groundbreaking decision from a New Jersey Appellate Court has ignited fevered discussion within the global Jewish community and beyond. The case centered around an Orthodox Jewish woman, previously restrained by law from voicing her anguish over her estranged husband’s refusal to grant her a get, the religious writ for a Jewish divorce.

The Appellate Court ruling categorically reversed an earlier restraining order issued by a lower court, initiated from a complaint by the husband regarding a heartfelt video the woman shared, spotlighting her torment.

Crucially, the Appellate Court’s verdict wasn’t just about a single woman’s First Amendment right to free speech; it has unveiled a broader, challenging discourse about the delicate interplay between age-old religious practices and our foundational civil rights in the modern era.

In a world where women have fought tirelessly for equal rights under the law, it is very disheartening to see faith-based laws being manipulated to abuse them. Jewish law addresses the spiritual and practical in equal measure, but human nature often gets in the way of justice, particularly if people want to use the rights and privileges provided for them by religion as a weapon to harm those they have fallen out with.

Tragically, this New Jersey case is not an isolated incident, but rather it offers a glimpse into a deeply ingrained issue faced by many Jewish women: the plight of the agunot.

Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University in New York, is adamant that the issue of agunot is a stain on all those who uphold and cherish Judaism: “While we must ensure that halakha is observed and the sanctity of the Jewish marriage is preserved, it is imperative that we remember the human faces behind these cases. The Torah was given to bring kindness, compassion, and peace into the world.”

Agunot, or “chained women”, is a definition that includes those who are denied a get by their husbands, leaving them trapped in marital limbo, unable to remarry according to Jewish law. Going back centuries, the problem of agunot was more generally to do with women whose husbands had disappeared, perhaps on a sea voyage, leaving them unsure if they had been widowed or not. Rabbinic authorities stretching back two millennia made every effort to use the flimsiest of evidence to record a death, so that these women could remarry.

But in modern times such stories are rare. Nevertheless, the problem of agunot still persists. The scourge of recalcitrant husbands who use their power under the law to punish estranged wives has become an all-too-common story. In Jewish law, only the man holds the authority to provide a get and end a marriage. This power dynamic often turns the religious divorce into a weapon of abuse, where men can exert control over their spouses by withholding the divorce document. Such manipulation is not only contrary to the spirit of Judaism – indeed, all husbands are bound by their duties as a Jewish husband to provide a get to their estranged wife – but it is also contrary to the fundamental rights of women.

In Parshat Nitzavim, the Torah bunches together all segments of the nation as a unified people of the covenant (Deut. 29:9): אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם – “You stand this day, all of you, before your God.” No one is left out: “your tribal heads, your elders, your officials – every householder in Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer.” Literally everyone is included.

The point is: there is no hierarchy under the law, and no one gets to lord it over anyone else simply because of their status. The tribal head must look after his wife, as must the elders and officials, and they must also all take care of the needy.

More importantly, as the comprehensive list shows, we are all bound up in this life together. Which means that when a woman is suffering from having been denied a get, the entire Jewish community is affected, and it is their duty to step in and ensure justice.

What is remarkable about this recent New Jersey case is that the court was emphatic: the misuse of religious laws to cause harm or pain to others is a form of abuse. The court wanted to make clear that while religious freedom is a fundamental right, and in the United States it is protected by the First Amendment – one must always be mindful of the fact that religious freedom should not come at the expense of the rights of others. Using religion as an excuse to exert control and power over another individual is not only legally wrong, but morally reprehensible.

Rabbinic authorities, scholars, and the broader Jewish community must work together to find solutions. The establishment of organizations such as the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) – which operates under the halakhic guidance of Rabbi Schachter – is a testament to the pressing need for change. However, broader community awareness and participation are also crucial.

The New Jersey case has revealed that there’s hope on the horizon. The fusion of Jewish advocacy, the fight for civil rights, and growing public support will, hopefully, pave the way for a future where religious laws uplift rather than oppress, and a life based on faith is one which is infused with joy and spirituality rather than tyranny and insensitivity.

The late Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, former President of Yeshiva University, once said about the plight of agunot: “The phenomenon of the agunah is the greatest single desecration of God’s name in our generation… The very idea of an agunah goes against the grain of Jewish morality. Every possible effort must be made to release these chained women from their plight.”

How right he was, and we must continue to follow his lead.

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