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    Unchaining the Agunah – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. What can be done to help the agunah, the “chained woman” who can’t get a religious divorce?

    A. From Talmudic times onwards, the rabbis have tried to ameliorate the position of Jewish women whose marriages have broken down in circumstances in which the husband will not or cannot give his wife a get (religious divorce).

    The original problem was where the husband was unavailable (maybe he was overseas, maybe he was dead but his death could apparently not be proved).

    After the Holocaust a great deal needed to be done to ease the lot of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands were missing.

    In recent times the more common situation was that of the woman whose husband refused to give her a get, and the suffering which such women undergo is often extreme.

    Rabbis are unable to sever the marital tie since it is the husband and wife who themselves entered the marriage and themselves have to divorce each other if reconciliation is not possible or desirable.

    Amongst great rabbinic decisors who have tried to help is Rav Moshe Feinstein who sought ways of invalidating the original marriage. Sometimes this involves finding a mistake or misrepresentation in the marriage and/or the wedding procedure.

    In some countries the secular law is able to help, not by forcing the couple to have a get, since the giving and receiving of the get have to be voluntary, and with each party’s consent. If there is a pre-nuptial agreement the parties will have undertaken to refer marriage problems to a nominated rabbinic court. There is however a problem in that the status of the agreement might not be upheld by the legal system.

    A woman who is in the situation of an agunah should obtain advice and guidance from a rabbi and a lawyer.

    I should point out that though the problem generally affects the woman there are times when it is the man who is refused a get by his ex-wife.

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