Home Perspectives Opinions #AgunotToo: Time’s up on ignoring abuse of divorce-refusal

#AgunotToo: Time’s up on ignoring abuse of divorce-refusal

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#TimesUp. It suddenly occurred to me that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s high time we acknowledge #AgunotToo and the centrality of domestic abuse in the lives of women who have been refused a get.

The Fast of Esther marks International Agunah Day, which we observe to publicize the plight of agunot, women refused a get (Jewish divorce decree) by their recalcitrant husbands. These days are linked.

According to the Talmud, biblical heroine Esther was forced into an unwanted marriage to King Ahasuerus. Esther, whose name is related to the Hebrew word “hester,” meaning “hidden,” was silenced. Like Esther, agunot today don’t control their own destinies. They are subject to the whims of a controlling spouse in challenging marriages. Like Esther, the voices of agunot have been hidden and silenced.

Get-refusal is abuse (precipitated by other domestic abuses). It is often the final vestige of control, and, at times, husbands attempt to leverage the get in exchange for civil concessions far beyond those they may be entitled to, turning the religious legal requirement into a civil bargaining chip. During my years of primary research, some women even expressed that get-refusal is harder to endure than physical violence because “once you remove yourself from the environment of physical abuse, it stops; but the abuse of get-refusal follows you everywhere.” It is troubling that a husband’s refusal to grant a get has come to be normatively recognized as his free will and not a gross domestic abuse violation that controls the legal, halakhic, psychological, social and marital/sexual destiny of his spouse. We must combat manipulation or subversion of religion by recalcitrant husbands.

Unfortunately, we have been tolerating rather than remedying the phenomenon in our communities. This is not moral or halakhic. The Torah in Deuteronomy 16 teaches us we should pursue justice. The status quo is simply unacceptable. We must challenge the notion that a get is negotiable. The get must be given prior to and separate from any and all divorce proceedings and negotiations (as Jewish law intended).


Framing get-refusal as domestic abuse provides context that both the social and legal worlds can understand, rather than dismissing it as just a religious issue or problem. Get-refusal is abuse (one of any number of abuses individuals may come to endure in unhealthy marriages). Power and violence will at times be deployed in conjugal relationships, Jewish or not. There are bad people – some of them are men who happen to be Jewish – and these bad individuals use whatever tools they have at their disposal to bolster themselves in their abuse; sometimes that includes religion.

Leadership must also stand up and say #TimesUp and #AgunotToo. Abuse in cultural/religious communities is not only about the individual abuser, but also about institutions, ideologies, structures and regulating normative orderings, which abusive men manipulate in their favour. (A rabbi in the Greater Toronto Area with training in counselling recently told me that it really doesn’t matter if the synagogue down the street had “only one or two agunot out of their 800 members.… Besides, it isn’t my congregation.” Would the rabbi say the same about other forms of domestic violence?) Abuse in all its forms must be eradicated and the porous borders between shuls or rabbis do not absolve any of us from saying time’s up on this abuse.

My research illustrates that the remedy is not to eliminate Jewish observance of the halakhot of marriage and divorce, because women see the importance of their religious identity and communal, socio-cultural and religious norms in their lives. Some also say the remedy is not to establish private contracts, as they’re a solution that comes to replace the necessity for basic human rights. All agree, however, that batei din (courts of Jewish law) must follow halakhic protocol, issue hazmanot (summonses to appear) and widely publicize seruvim (contempt of court citations). Communities, schools, support organizations, rabbis and individuals, likewise, have a responsibility to talk openly about the persistence of the abuse of get-refusal. Educate children to give and accept a get promptly and unconditionally. Pressure and demand that recalcitrant husbands, rabbis and batei din do the right thing – issue a get, stand up to corrupt courts and follow halakhic protocol. Support agunot and their children. Make them feel welcome in the community and at synagogue, and do the opposite for the recalcitrant spouse.

Whether the best remedies come from within the religion or outside it, via legal systems or from grassroots efforts, the only conclusion that can decisively be drawn is that Jewish women at all levels of observance are faced with this form of abuse to which there is no solution to date. Women are at risk –social justice concerns us all. Join me in saying #TimesUp on the abuse of get-refusal for #AgunotToo.

Yael Machtinger is a professor of law and society at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and studies intersections between law and religion. She is currently under contract for a book on the first comprehensive, qualitative study of Jewish divorce-refusal and the first comparative study between Toronto and New York. She can be contacted at [email protected]