Friday, November 04, 2011

the New Agunos

A guest post by Chaim Bray
What Bray writes, thinks, and says does not necessarily reflect the views of this blog. In fact, it probably doesn't.

How something is worded can make a world of difference in how it is perceived. E.g. the two sides in the abortion debate describe themselves as pro-choice and pro-life. No party in the debate wants to be called anti-choice, anti-life, pro-coercion or even pro-abortion.

So let's call a spade a spade.

A catchphrase that has found a home in Frum Society is "the Shidduch Crisis". But such terminology does not begin to capture the severity of the situation. I've heard that a few years ago a Bais Yaakov Dean who made it his business to keep up with his alumni approached the Novominsker Rebbe claiming that he knew of hundreds of older single girls in his community and that, at first, the Rebbe was incredulous. The dean returned with notebooks documenting around 300 of his alumni over the age of 25 and more than 150 over the age of 30. As the Rebbe turned the pages of these notebooks he began weeping and after about a half hour looked up and whispered "It's another Holocaust!"

If I ever came to power my politically correct term for what's happening today would be the advent of "the new Agunah". Historically an Agunah referred to a woman whose husband had disappeared and/or whose death could not be ascertained to the credibility levels required by Halakha. More recently it has come to mean women who know the whereabouts and health of their husbands desiring divorces to free them from failed marriages but who cannot remarry due to their husbands' intransigence in granting a Get.

But a quick perusal of Jewish Law and Lore reveals that Igun is not limited to an inability to marry due to the unresolved dissolution of a prior marriage.

Naomi told her daughters-in-law to return to their Moabite Nation lest they become Agunos awaiting the Levirate marriage (Yivum):( הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ" (רות א' י"ג .

The owners of the halakhic mischling known as the חצי עבד חצי בן חורין =half-slave, half-freeman are enjoined to liberate him completely to end the limbo state of no marital or non-marital outlet for his intimate and companionship needs that he currently finds himself in. The Mishna cites the reason for this forced emancipation as being מפני תקון העולם = for the repair of the world (Tiqun Olam)/for the betterment of society.

There are sugyos and Teshuvos about Igun due to soldiers going off to war, women refusing to accept Khalitza, widows of Holocaust, Titanic and 9.11 victims and many other permutations. I've heard it explained that the motivation of the Heter Meah Rabbonim was to reduce igun among men since two planks of Rabenu Gershoms Kherem were to forbid polygamy and coercive gittin against the woman will.

The common denominator among all of these things is that anything at all which prevents people from achieving intimacy and companionship is an issue of igun.

The word Agunah is fraught and loaded. On the one hand the compassion and concern of Khazal and Poskim to resolve the isolation and marginalization of Agunos, both female and male, is palpable. On the other hand it is true that the vast majority of Igun cases over the millenia concerned otherwise married woman-those who, incorrectly licensed to remarry, would transgress the most serious of aveiros and possibly bring irredeemable mamzerim into the world. As such only the boldest and greatest of Poskim, those with the proverbial ברייטע פלייצע'ס = "broad shoulders" were willing to tackle Agunah questions. When it came to Heter Agunos...there has never been any margin for error.

There is something limp-wristed and lacking in urgency about calling the current state of affairs a mere shidduch crisis. It almost makes it sound as though the problem is that not enough vorts/ tenoim are being celebrated. The problem is not too many 30 year old "girls" (and how offensive it must be for an accomplished professional woman to hear herself referred to as a "girl" at the age of 30). The issue is nothing less than a pan-societal Agunah explosion.

It makes little difference if the cause of massive pan-societal igun is due to seafaring merchants whose fate is unknown, Halakhic mischlings, soldiers who are MIA, recalcitrant husbands or a new Jewish society whose values are such that females who are not from rich families or who wear dresses larger than size 4, or males who are not cut out for decades long full time post-marital learning, need not apply for marriage within the confines of polite Frum Society. The bottom line is that today K'lal Yisroel is suffering from more Igun than it ever did in the all the years when tracing a missing persons whereabouts or convincing a stubborn Get-witholder to play ball was difficult or impossible.

And while the Novominskers description of the problem in Holocaust terms addresses all the Jewish children left unborn due to marriages that never took place and families that were never built humble me thinks that if we began referring to it as "the New Igun", with all the loneliness, marginalization, injustice, unhealthy intimacy needs left unfulfilled and isolation that the loaded word implies maybe the laity would be shaken out of our doldrums and the Gedolei haPoskim would be moved to flex the legislative muscles of their broad shoulders.

It is one thing for a parent or ones neighbor to have an older single living at home when all of their friends are married with four plus kids. It is quite another thing for a parent or ones neighbor to have an Ogun or an Agunah living under their roofs.

I have a dream that one day I will live in a Kharedistan where hundreds of Agunos are liberated not by the writing of an innovative and brilliant responsum of one trailblazing Rabbi but by the writing of hundreds of new Kesubos by scores of Rabbis.

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