Academic journal article American Jewish History

"A Predominant Cause of Distress": Gender, Benevolence, and the Agunah in Regional Perspective

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"A Predominant Cause of Distress": Gender, Benevolence, and the Agunah in Regional Perspective

Article excerpt

A "Chained Woman": The Plight of the Agunah

In observant Jewish communities, finding a solution to the plight of the abandoned woman, or agunah--literally, "chained woman"--has challenged scholars, religious leaders, and activists for centuries. Historically, agunot have struggled to sustain their religious devotion, to navigate the challenges of diasporic identity, and to maintain their cultural and religious authenticity in the face of the larger world's assimilationist demands. According to traditional Jewish law, or halakhah, a married woman may not remarry unless she obtains a get--a rabbinically mediated and approved divorce--from her husband. Only a husband can grant his wife a get, and a woman whose husband disappears is left in a thorny predicament. (1) She may remarry civilly without a get, but Jewish law labels her an adulteress, and children resulting from the new marriage are considered mamzerim, bastards. The stigma of mamzerut is passed down through the generations, allowing mamzerim to marry only other mamzerim. Jewish law therefore designates all descendants of agunot as illegitimate and morally contaminated, yet a man who refuses to grant his wife a get is not subject to any similar penalty. (2)

Unable to remarry without an official get, the agunah's options are limited. Her predicament often descends into financial desperation, where religious observance and practical necessity appear at odds. Historically, agunot have tried to track down errant husbands and persuade them to provide a get, but this often proved difficult for women with limited means. Husbands sometimes moved out of state and changed their names to avoid responsibility for their estranged wives. Having exhausted efforts to locate her spouse, an agunah might have no choice but to remarry civilly, despite the stigma of mamzerut and the betrayal of her faith.

Many have noted that the laws governing deserted women ironically punish them for their religious devotion, while deserters might walk free and unencumbered. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leader of contemporary efforts to provide justice and support to agunot, writes that "a vindictive husband, or one who is unconcerned with the requirements of Jewish law, can not only deny his wife a religious divorce if he so chooses, but can also--once he has obtained a secular divorce--remarry before a justice of the peace, [forcing] his halakhically concerned wife to languish as an agunah." (3) As a professor of Jewish culture, Naomi Seidman asserts that the laws pertaining to the agunah ensure that "men can easily disappear, leaving patriarchal law to guarantee their power," while their wives and children suffer in their absence. (4)

It is difficult to provide accurate data on the number of desertions that have taken place in a given time and space, since many women do not report their husbands' absence. Yet scholars have shown that episodes of wife desertion rise substantially during times of political turmoil, economic hardship, and mass migration. (5) Certainly, such was the case with the immigration of more than 2 million Eastern European Jews to the United States from 1881 to 1914. (6) Since it endangered the survival and acculturation of immigrant Jewish families in the New World, desertion soon became a "predominant cause of distress," in the words of one leader, a threat to communal Jewish acceptance and cultural continuity. (7) Some social reformers noted that desertion appeared more prevalent among Jews than other immigrant groups, and acculturated Jewish citizens therefore took the lead in founding a network of institutions designed to track down errant husbands and compel them to support their families. (8) Desertion signified Jewish men's refusal to observe the nation's masculine ideals, by which respectable men provided for their families' welfare and made it possible for their wives to remain, respectably, at home. In addition, abandoned wives and children burdened the public purse, and their dependency threatened the reputation of Jews as responsible citizens who took care of their own. …

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