What is an “agunah”?
An agunah (or chained woman) was traditionally a woman whose husband had disappeared in wartime or at sea, for example. Such a woman could not 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, however, many agunot find themselves "chained" by husbands who refuse to give them a get. This refusal to give a get is a common form of spousal abuse, a way to keep power and control over a woman and prevent her from moving on with her life. Often a man abuses his power by refusing to give a get unless his wife agrees to give him custody of their children, money, or something else that he wants.
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 re-marry and have full control over her own life decisions. For an Orthodox woman, the inability to re-marry and perhaps have children can make her feel as if she has lost her identity, which may be entirely as a wife and mother.
What is a “mesarev get”?
A mesarev get is a man who refuses to give his wife a get, forcing her to become an agunah. Such behavior is frowned upon by all streams of Judaism.
What kinds of actions might a community take against a “mesarev get”?
A beit din will often issue a decree, called a seruv, against a mesarev get, condemning (criticizing) him for refusing to grant his wife a get. Seruvim are taken very seriously in observant communities of all streams, though outside the State of Israel, they have no legal force under civil law.
Many Orthodox communities will place social or financial pressure upon a mesarev get to urge him to divorce his wife. Some communities will refuse to allow him to participate in the life of the synagogue; friends will cut off relations with him; and the members of many communities will refuse to do business with him. Jewish communities publish the names of mesarvei get in their newsletters, the local papers, and even on the Internet, guaranteeing that the man’s bad behavior is widely known. Often concerned members of a community will picket outside the home of a mesarev get or call for a boycott of his business or store. These tactics can be very effective.
What if a husband refuses to give his wife a “get”? What can she do?
If your husband refuses to give you a get, speak to your rabbi. He or she may be able to convene a beit din and issue a seruv against your husband. Your rabbi may also be able to get the community to pressure him to give it. You may also want to contact one of the organizations listed here, who assist agunot. These organizations provide women with legal counsel and with therapists trained to help victims of domestic abuse. You can also read the section above about what kinds of actions a community can take against a mesarev get. You or other members of the community, may be able to get the community to take the actions described against your husband.
However, you may want to talk to a domestic violence advocate before participating in any community actions to try to make a plan that will keep you safe from your husband.
You can find advocates in your area at the Places that Help tab at the top of the page under Advocates and Shelters. You can find tips on how to make a safety plan to keep yourself safe from an abuser at our Staying Safe pages.
If a husband does not give his wife a “get”, can she still get a civil divorce?
If a husband refuses to give his wife a get, she can still get a civil divorce in all states.
Some states have specific protections for women whose husbands refuse to give a get. New York has passed legislation, called the “Get Law,” Domestic Relations Law §253, which says that when a party sues for civil divorce, it is the responsibility of both parties to ensure that there are no barriers —religious or otherwise— to remarriage for either party after the divorce. This effectively insures that a man cannot, under the law of New York State, refuse to give a woman a get. If you live New York State, be sure to talk to your civil lawyer and your rabbi about how to insure that your husband gives you a get. Find Legal Resources in New York here.
If you live in a state other than New York, talk to your divorce lawyer to ask that s/he request that the judge make a similar order.* Go to Finding a Lawyer and choose your state from the drop down menu for legal resources in your state.
* Note: While no other state currently has statutes guaranteeing the right to a get, there is case law in the statutory annotations of many states regarding this topic. Get cases are sometimes argued under the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” For example, in one New Jersey divorce case, the court decided that forcing the husband to give a get fulfilled the secular purpose of completing the divorce; since no religious ritual was required in order to obtain the get, and since the get in no way impacted his ability to practice his religion, his First Amendment rights were not infringed by this requirement.
How does domestic violence play into the issues of “mesarvei get” and “agunot”?
The behavior of a mesarev get is itself a kind of abuse: a man who refuses to give his wife a get is abusing his privileges under Jewish law and is seeking to control her in an abusive way. Often, when a man is unwilling to grant his wife a get, this is a continuation of controlling and abusive behaviors that were present in the couple’s marriage. Domestic violence is made up of many kinds of abuse (physical, emotional, financial, sexual) that a woman seeking a get may have survived; if her husband forces her to become an agunah, this is another form of abuse.
Many Jewish women who have survived domestic violence feel shame because they believe that other Jewish husbands are not abusive and that they themselves have failed to fulfill their duty of creating shalom bayit, peace in the home. Remember: domestic violence is never the woman's fault, no matter what your religion. Rates of domestic violence are about the same in the Jewish community as in the community at large, and they are the same across all socio-economic levels, all levels of education, all streams of Judaism, and all levels of observance. A Jewish woman is as likely as any other woman to become a victim of domestic violence. Like all such victims, she does not deserve the abuse. She does deserve the right to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure her safety and happiness and those of her children and future children.
Many battei din consider it a moral obligation to help an abused wife get away from her husband and receive a get. If your beit din is not proactive, you might consider contacting one of the organizations that assist agunot and victims of domestic violence.