Yesterday was International Agunah Day, a day marked for community and individual acknowledgement and action on the plight of the women who are unable to obtain a ‘get’ – a religious divorce – from their husbands. The day deliberately coincides with the fast of Esther, a day when Queen Esther prayed that her husband would not forbid her from speaking to him, something she desperately needed to do in order to save the Jewish community, and herself, from genocidal plans.
To those of us familiar with domestic violence, Purim is a holiday that highlights dynamics of power and control in intimate relationships. First there is Vashti, a wife who refuses to participate in demeaning sexual activity and suffers the consequences, and then there is Esther who is apprehensive about speaking to her husband because of his total power over her. Being a king has its special privileges, and I am not saying that King Achashverosh was deliberately engaging in domestic violence. But his status both as a man and as a king conferred the power to control other people’s lives. While we rejoice that the story ends happily for us, thinking about the relationships between that husband and his wives can be instructive.
The dynamics of domestic abuse haven’t changed throughout the ages. An abuser demeans, controls, and demonstrates his power through emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and physical abuse. Denying or withholding a get is a form of domestic abuse unique to the Jewish community. A husband exerts his power to control his wife by refusing to allow her to leave an already dead marriage and forcing her to remain his wife. She is stripped of agency, stopped from forming a new relationship, and forever reminded that she is bound to a man she does not love.
When entering a marriage no bride wants to think about the possibility that the relationship might turn abusive, that she may need a safety plan or an exit strategy. Safety plans are typically developed after the fact – after a pattern of abuse has occurred – to help the victim prepare for the inevitable next episode of abuse. But just like buying an insurance policy, safety planning to prevent get abuse begins before the parties are married, even without any indication that a husband would withhold a get. Safety planning begins by signing the rabbinically approved prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get refusal before the wedding. In fact, JWI believes that this safety planning should begin even earlier, by teaching teenagers about get refusal abuse and how to empower themselves against it.
Orthodox leadership has crafted a solution to diminish the chances of a husband withholding or threatening to withhold the get – the rabbinically approved Prenuptial Agreement for the Prevention of Get-Refusal (the halachic pre-nuptial agreement). “It’s a rock-solid solution,” said Rabbi Yona Reiss, in an interview with Tablet Magazine. Reiss, head of the religious court of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and past director of the Beit Din of America, said the prenuptial, “has produced a get in a timely fashion in 100 percent of the cases where it was duly executed.”
Perhaps these statistics are so because only men who would never consider withholding a religious divorce to his wife when the marriage is broken, sign the halachic pre-nuptial agreement. I don’t know if that’s true – but what I do know is that until signing it is normalized – becoming part of routine wedding preparations – we are enabling the possibility of abuse, and that is unconscionable. Signing a halachic pre-nuptial agreement needs to become another item on the long check-list that brides and grooms (and their parents) use to prepare for the wedding – venue, date, guest-list, invitations, menu, band, flowers, dress, kittel, ketubah, wedding rings, sheitel appointments, mikvah appointments, halachic pre-nuptial… Check! Just another item on the long checklist of to-dos, before the big “I do.”
Some people question whether talking about divorce is appropriate at this juncture. The truth is that a Jewish wedding already contains important protections for the woman in case of divorce – the ketubah, a document that is thousands of years old is read under the chuppah and spells out the husband’s obligations to his wife during the marriage, after his death, and if he chooses to divorce her.
Over the next two years, with support from the Aviv Foundation, JWI will be working with partners around the country to teach orthodox teenagers about get abuse and the preventive tool of the halachic pre-nuptial agreement. The halachic prenuptial is protective and empowering, and we owe it to our teens, as they envision their own romantic relationships and take steps to find their life partner, to prepare them for their journey.
Deborah Rosenbloom is vice president of programs at Jewish Women International. To learn more or become involved with Get Smart, contact her at [email protected]