Such situations do not arise in the Reform movement, which often relies on civil divorce, or in the Reconstructionist movement, which grants unilateral divorces in cases of recalcitrance. Rachel Adler, a Reform activist and theologian, has advocated replacing the traditional marriage ceremony, kiddushin, with an egalitarian shutafut ("partnership") ceremony, in part to avoid the creation of mamzerim and thus promote harmony with other movements.
Orthodox and Conservative rabbis in the diaspora have devised various methods for preventing women from becoming agunot, including the use of conditional marriage formulas, special clauses within the ketubah (marriage contract), and prenuptial agreements that make civil divorce contingent on the granting of a get. You can read about Conservative approaches to the problem here; the prenuptial agreement sanctioned by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America can be found here. Responsible rabbis do not officiate at weddings unless the agunah issue has been addressed. Those of us who marry in a halakhic context also have a duty to avail ourselves of one of these methods of agunah prevention, even if we expect to be married forever (as most of us do). It is only once these precautions become de rigueur that the problem will have been resolved.
When precautions have not been taken and a woman finds herself unable to obtain a get, rabbinical courts will often attempt to annul the marriage by means of various legal loopholes. Some courts (notably the Conservative and Masorti courts and the Morgenstern/Rackman bet din) grant annulments more readily than others. In Israel, where rabbinical courts are an arm of the state, legal sanctions are often imposed on recalcitrant husbands. However, such sanctions are not always effective, and the courts are not always willing to impose them. Rabbi David Malka, an Israeli rabbinical judge, recently admitted to the Jerusalem Post that he often encourages women to submit to the financial demands of recalcitrant husbands:
"Listen, this is money that she never earned," explained Malka. "Only in theory does it belong to her.
"For instance, according to the law the wife is entitled to half of a man's pension rights even though she never worked a day in her life. I do not think she should remain an aguna because she is stubborn about receiving her half."
The ugliness of such a statement coming from a leader of a community that encourages women to be stay-at-home mothers boggles the mind.The organization Yad L'Isha (mentioned above) has made important strides toward helping Israeli agunot, including the creation of the institution of to`anot bet din, women who advocate for other women in divorce cases. Although they have no halakhic standing in rabbinical courts because of their gender, the to`anot, who are experts in the laws of marriage and divorce, have managed to work with rabbinical judges to free many potential agunot.
Right now, however, Israeli women are in a precarious situation. Annoyed by the public pressure imposed on them by institutions such as Yad L'Isha, the Israeli Council of Rabbinical Judges has decided to sever all ties with organizations that advocate for agunot. We can only hope that there is enough negative publicity to change their minds.
Please help spread the word about this problem, and take a moment today to recite the prayer for agunot.
You can read more about the connection between agunot and the Fast of Esther here.
(Hat tip to Miriam Shaviv and OOSJ, may his blog rest in peace, for linking to the JPost article.)