Breakthrough in war against “get refusers.” Schechter’s Rabbi Diana Villa advises women that the best defense is a strong pre-nuptial agreement.
After thousands of years, the Jewish People are living in a sovereign state, one in which the Rabbinical Courts have authority to rule, without a foreign power limiting their power. Even so, a woman has to wait over ten years to receive her get (and that does not include the year or two that she probably waited until the rabbis ruled that the husband must give her the get). This woman was imprisoned in a marriage she did not want for 12 or 13 years, and we are all in danger of being imprisoned by conservative rabbinical courts that usually apply the most severe interpretations of the law.
Jewish law accepts the possibility of divorce when a marriage fails and it offers tools to deal with recalcitrant husbands. However, there are vindictive husbands who are willing to pay a high personal price to ensure that their wives cannot remarry. Therefore we must adopt preventive measures.
Many people think that this is a problem for observant couples only. This is not the case: rabbinic courts have authority over marriages between two Jews. In recent years they have hardened their stance and often require a get when there was only a civil marriage abroad and no Jewish ceremony at all.
And so, if we want to avoid even the slightest chance (most husbands will not be willing to stay in jail for ten years, yet some will be willing to extort their wives in different ways in exchange for the get) that our children may find themselves in this woman's situation, we must ensure that they sign a prenuptial agreement to prevent them from becoming agunot. It must be a halakhically valid agreement, such as the Brit Shalom agreement used by Masorti rabbis - http://www.responsafortoday.com/images/britshalom.pdf
These agreements, which must be ratified by a notary public, the rabbi who registers the wedding at the rabbinate, a rabbinic court or a family court before the wedding, are considered valid contracts according to Israeli law. Couples in love who sign such an agreement are declaring before their wedding that if they separate they will both be on equal footing. This will prevent a lot of tension and disagreeable situations if they decide to go ahead with a divorce.
Since these agreements are considered valid contracts, they can be enforced by the civil courts. The recalcitrant spouse (a woman can also refuse to accept a get, however the consequences are less severe) will not want to comply with the economic penalties in the agreement and hence will probably make the divorce process considerably shorter.
For more information, see http://www.schechter.edu/lil4-e.pdf
For the English version of a similar agreement, the Agreement for Mutual Respect, see http://www.youngisraelrabbis.org.il/prenup.htm
Let us hope that after 65 years of national independence for the State of Israel,
couples who decide that their marriage has unfortunately come to and end, will have the independence to do so in a timely manner.
RabbiDiana Villa, a graduate of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, directs the Mishlei Bet Midrash/academic program at Schechter and is Schechter’s representative at I.C.A.R. (International Coalition for Agunah Rights) and an active member of its steering committee.