Seventy-two couples, from newlyweds to those together more than half a century, publicly signed agreements on Sept. 13 that, if their marriages end in civil divorce, they both will “participate in a get,” or Jewish religious divorce.
They heeded the call of Rabbi Michael Whitman, spiritual leader of Adath Israel Poalei Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Congregation (The Adath), the initator of the new postnuptial agreement, who wants every Jewish couple in Canada to sign the document.
He believes that this contract, which is halachically valid and conforms to Canadian and Quebec law, can eliminate “the nightmare” of the agunah problem “within our generation, if we work together.
“Refusing a get is a form of domestic abuse. And we will do everything in our power to make it stop,” he said
The problem most affects women (known as agunot, or chained, because they are not free to remarry within their faith) because it is the man who grants the get. She, however, must accept it to finalize the transaction. Neither can remarry within Orthodox Judaism until that happens.
The postnup, which he wrote with the input of lawyers, law professors and former judges, is the first of its kind in this country. It resembles the prenuptial agreement he created last year, which is signed before the wedding, and a postnup in use in the United States by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
He referred the signing event as “history-making” in Canada.
Aside from its legal validity, Rabbi Whitman said these agreements are intended as a deterrent to ex-spouses withholding a get.
In a festive atmosphere at the Adath, a modern Orthodox congregation in Hampstead, with live music and refreshments, couples lined up at tables behind which two men sat.
As shomer Shabbat adult males, they were witnesses to the signing by both the husband and wife and signed themselves. Photocopies were made on the spot for each spouse, as well as for Rabbi Whitman’s files and for the RCA registry in New York of such post- and prenups.
The event was open to any Jewish couple, and Rabbi Whitman hopes this was the beginning of a movement across Canada.
The Agreement to Foster Mutual Respect and Remove Barriers to Religious Remarriage states that the signatories “understand that, according to Jewish law, when a marriage has irrevocably failed, a get (Jewish bill of divorce) must be willingly given and received without delay, and without refusal for any reason.”
The husband and wife promise to “freely and voluntarily agree, without compulsion and without reservation,” to appear before the Beth Din of America in New York or another beit din (rabbinical court) that it authorizes. Rabbi Whitman said the beit din of Montreal’s Vaad Ha’ir falls under that category.
The postnup, which is free of charge, is also available in French.
The project has the endorsement of close to 25 Montreal synagogues and Jewish organizations. Among those listed are the Montreal Board of Rabbis, Chabad NDG and Congrégation Sépharade Or Hahayim, as well as Agence Ometz, Federation CJA’s social services agency; the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get; Emunah Montreal, and the Montreal Centre of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO.
Over 250 people attended the event, which Rabbi Whitman described as a clear statement that it is unacceptable in this community to refuse an ex-spouse the get. Married couples who sign postnups are also serving as role models for couples getting married, he said.
“There is no step to take that is more helpful to removing the stain on our community of get refusal than to sign a halachic prenup or postnup,” he said.
While civil courts have traditionally been reluctant to impose a religious practice despite any contractual obligation the parties have entered, Rabbi Whitman believes his pre- and postnups would be admitted by Canadian judges.
“In the opinion of a group of the greatest legal minds in Canada… this document is the strongest possible… It creates a secular, legally binding contract that can be upheld by a judge in court.”
These agreements also have the support of leading rabbis and scholars of Jewish law in Canada, he said, and are based on a document written by halachic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
In 1990, the federal Divorce Act was amended to allow courts to put pressure on spouses who refuse to remove “barriers” to the other’s religious remarriage, but it has not proven to be the solution to the agunot problem.
The RCA’s American prenup has stood up in at least one U.S. court challenge.
Besides the legal and halachic considerations, one obstacle to the widespread adoption of these agreements is superstition. The engaged or happily married fear tempting fate if they acknowledge their marriage could break down or that their partner could be the type of person to keep them locked in marital limbo.
A former agunah, Miriam Ditkofsky, told the gathering that this sort of thinking is no more logical than refusing to put on a seatbelt because it might increase the risk of a car accident. “There’s nothing wrong with going into marriage with your eyes open,” she said.
Ditkofsky’s ex-husband, to whom she was married for 27 years and with whom she had nine children, denied her a get for seven years.
She calls it “a long prison sentence,” which only ended two years ago when Rabbi Whitman helped organize a demonstration involving a convoy of some 25 vehicles that brought attention to her husband’s recalcitrance in the chassidic community in which he was living.
Dorothy and Larry Rosenthal, who are celebrating their 55th anniversary, said in an interview that they hope to set an example for their seven grandchildren.
“There were no prenups when we got married [by the late Rabbi Sidney Shoham at Beth Zion Congregation],” Dorothy Rosenthal said. “But we have come to realize how important it is. We have seen many sad, bitter separations and divorces because of the lack of prior arrangements.”
“There’s nothing negative about this,” her husband added. “This is a question of prevention, of preparation.”
Evelyn Brook, a past president of the Coalition of Jewish Women for the Get who was in forefront of the struggle for agunot for years, lauded Rabbi Whitman for this “wonderful” initiative.
“Setting an example for our children and grandchildren is doing a mitzvah, and a mitzvah is not a good deed, but an obligation.”