MONTREAL — Couples who want to marry at two traditional synagogues in Montreal will now be required to sign a halachic prenuptial agreement.
The rabbis of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim and Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (TBDJ) have pledged to only officiate at weddings where the bride and groom have first agreed that, if they ever seek a civil divorce, he will give her a get – a Jewish divorce decree – and she will accept it.
TBDJ is affiliated with the Orthodox Union, while Shaar Hashomayim is officially independent of any denomination but Orthodox in many of its practices.
Rabbis Adam Scheier and Yonah Berman, respectively, senior and associate rabbis at Shaar Hashomayim, and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of TBDJ are members of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), an association of modern Orthodox rabbis that has adopted this policy.
On May 22, at the IRF’s annual conference held in Washington, D.C., its 150 members voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of the resolution, according to a statement the organization issued.
The resolution further encourages, but does not require, members not to participate in any wedding ritual where no prenuptial agreement exists. This means not reading the ketubah, serving as a witness or making one of the Sheva Brachot, for example.
The IRF, which was founded in 2009, called the resolution “a historic step to prevent further agunot,” women who are unable to remarry within traditional Judaism because their ex-husbands have not given them a get.
“The IRF is now on record as the only Orthodox rabbinical organization in the world to require its members to use a halachic prenuptial agreement in any wedding at which they officiate,” said its president, Rabbi Joel Tessler, senior rabbi of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Md., and an executive board member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
“This is a critical part of our ongoing efforts to help eliminate the tragedy of the modern-day agunah situation.”
In practice, little will change at the two Montreal synagogues. Rabbi Scheier has required a prenuptial agreement at all of the 20 to 30 weddings he conducts on average each year since he joined the Shaar Hashomayim in 2005. The shul, however, has no written policy on the matter, he said.
Rabbi Scheier said most modern Orthodox rabbis in Montreal also require a prenuptial agreement. “I have encountered no resistance, but I have heard of some grooms or families [balking at entering such an agreement].”
The importance of the IRF resolution, to Rabbi Scheier’s mind, is that it is a “principled position” that reinforces the message that denying a former spouse (it’s usually the woman) of a Jewish divorce is unacceptable and has “devastating” consequences.
In Montreal, there is no standard prenuptial agreement that is halachically acceptable. Rabbi Scheier said modern Orthodox rabbis here use a number of adaptations of one developed by the RCA, in consultation with divorce lawyers and other experts, suitable for the Canadian context.
Whether compliance with a halachic prenuptial agreement can be enforced is less clear. The remedies within the Jewish community are limited and are questionable in civil law.
Rabbi Scheier said he could not offer a legal opinion on how Canadian courts might regard such agreements.
“Their legality has not been fully tested,” he said. “This is an important, but not final, step in the resolution of the agunot issue.”
Rabbis Scheier and Steinmetz are board members of the IRF, which was founded by American rabbis Avi Weiss and Marc Angel. The IRF has members throughout the United States, seven in Canada, and some in Israel and elsewhere.
Among the other members in Canada are Rabbi Howard Joseph, rabbi emeritus of Montreal’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue; Rabbi Aaron Levy, founding director of Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism in Toronto, and Rabbi Martin Lockshin, a York University humanities professor and writer.
Rabbi Lockshin said the resolution represents an important moral stand, but experience has shown that the existence of a halachic prenuptial agreement does reduce the likelihood of a get being refused, or at least, not for an extended period.
“The Beth Din of America, whose prenuptial agreement is the most commonly used, claims that where a couple has signed such an agreement, the longest it has taken [for the get to be issued and accepted] is nine months. So it is having an impact on cutting down the agunah problem.”
Rabbi Lockshin, volunteer rabbi of the Toronto Partnership Minyan, said he performs about two weddings a year.
“The first thing I tell the couple is that I will not conduct the wedding without the agreement. I give them a copy and suggest they consult a lawyer, if they want.”
Although there has been no court challenge, he said it appears that “just having the threat over their heads has been effective so far.”