An agunah (or chained woman) was traditionally a woman whose husband had disappeared, for example in wartime or at sea. Such a woman cannot remarry under Jewish law because her husband cannot be proven to be dead; in the event he is still alive, he and his wife are still married if he didn’t give her a get before disappearing. As a solution to this problem, in the contemporary State of Israel, many men write their wives a conditional get before leaving for military service. This document assures that if the husband is lost in battle, his wife will be free to remarry and go on with her life.
Today, many agunot find themselves chained by husbands who refuse to give them a get. In many cases, refusal to give a get is a form of spousal abuse, a way to exert control over a woman. An abusive husband may refuse to grant his wife a get because he wants to leverage his power in civil court so that she may be willing to give him custody or visitation with the children or perhaps be willing to ask for less spousal support or other economic support for granting her a get. This puts the abused woman in the impossible predicament of potentially being coerced into making decisions that may not be legally or financially in the best interests of her or her children so that she can secure a get.
Being an agunah can create real hardship and sorrow for a woman, her children, and for all her friends and family. As an agunah, she is unable to marry again and have full control over her own life decisions.
To learn more about Jewish Divorce and obtaining a get, review JOFA's Guide to Jewish Divorce & the Beit Din System.
Proactive measures to prevent becoming an agunah
One of the best ways to prevent the possibility of becoming an agunah is either to sign a prenuptial agreement or to write a statement into your ketbuah indicating that, in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. The Orthodox rabbinate argues that writing such a clause (called the Lieberman Clause, in honor of the Reform rabbi who first introduced it) into the ketubah is non-halachic (invalid under Jewish law), but the Conservative rabbinate supports this measure. Many rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, however, support the signing of aprenuptial agreement . This can be entirely separate from a secularprenuptial agreement, and can refer exclusively to the responsibility of both parties to give and accept a get should the necessity arise.
Few who are about to get married really want to think about divorce because no one thinks it will ever happen to them. But the problem of the agunah is a serious one, and it is wise to be protected against such a situation. Jewish couples already sign a ketubah, detailing their obligations to each other, so signing a prenuptial agreement is only one more step.
Many rabbis, including Orthodox rabbis, suggest that couples who are already married sign a postnuptial agreement stating that, in the event of divorce, the husband agrees to give a get and the wife agrees to accept it. This, too, may seem like an awkward step for a married couple to take, but it just another way to safeguard both parties’ rights in the event of the marriage’s demise.
Resources for Agunot
Agunah International has its own beit din which is extremely proactive in granting gitten to agunot. They also counsel agunot whose husbands are withholding gitten as a means of control, provide financial aid to agunot in need, and raise awareness about the plight of agunot in the community.
GET Assistance Project of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) is a not-for-profit law firm in New York City, providing free civil legal assistance to people who live with domestic violence and seek a divorce.
The International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) advocates for the rights of agunot. Visit their website for information about their programs.
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) offers a thorough guide to the process of getting a get, a glossary and extensive reference material about Jewish law and the problems of agunot.
Kayama is a not-for-profit organization based in Brooklyn, NY that helps women obtain gitten. There is no charge for their services.
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) is a social service agency that works with agunot, rabbis, and battei din to expedite the process of obtaining a get.
Visit the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) for more information concerning prenuptial agreements and gets.
Information contained on this website should not be construed as legal advice. Read full disclaimer.