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The Great Agunah Debacle – Part I

Two thousand years ago, when exploitive merchants extorted women by raising the cost of the Temple offerings women were required to bring after giving birth, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, Nasi Israel and its highest Rabbinic authority said: “I will not sleep until the price is lowered.” He then told women they could bring one offering for every five births. The price dropped drastically.

Rabban Gamaliel had no problem changing even a divine commandment to correct an injustice. That is what rabbis are supposed to do. “Pursue justice, for I am just,” the Torah tells us. When a drunken, wife-beating adulterer can refuse to divorce his wife (turning her into an “agunah” or chained woman) , preventing her from remarrying indefinitely, this is something any human being recognizes as evil, and unjust. And yet, the majority of today’s rabbis absolutely refuse to change this barbaric situation, a situation in which every single Jewish woman who seeks a divorce is subject to endless extortion by her husband with the complete collusion of the Rabbinical Courts.

Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, great-grandson of Rav Katzenelbogen of Mezritz, and a brilliant Torah scholar and posek in his own right, who received ordination from Torah Va’daat and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, has ruled that when all other methods have failed, we do not extort a woman, or cause her to live in celibacy or childlessness because her vindictive spouse has decided to withhold her divorce decree. We simply say: At the time of the marriage, she didn’t know what a sadist this man has proven himself to be. Therefore, her agreeing to marry him is a “ta’ut”, a mistake. Marriage is a contract. When one side falsifies the terms (by being a secret sadist, which every recalcitrant husband proves by his recalcitrance) then the marriage was invalid to begin with and we, the Rabbis, annul it. The woman doesn’t have to pay any exorbitant bribes. Doesn’t have to track him down and beg him. Nothing. He disappears. His power of evil destroyed by the good that is the Torah.

Rabbi Morgenstern’s court freed 300 agunot in this — and other — very humane, simple, and halachically acceptable ways (all those taking out their pens to complain that I can’t judge that, I suggest they read the halachic analysis in Rabbi Morgenstern’s book “Hatarat Agunot” or go to the internet site:; it is written in a way that any intelligent person can grasp).

Rabbi Morgenstern and his colleague, the great Rabbi Rackman, have done a great sanctification of G-d’s name by righting this wrong in Halachic rulings with their court.

For this wonderful and heroic deed, Rav Morgenstern and Rabbi Rackman have been vilified, slandered and attacked. The rulings of their court have been denounced by the Rabbinical herd, frothing and incensed that anyone should reduce, one iota, the complete male dictatorship over marriage and divorce in the Jewish religion, a dictatorship that turns every chuppah into a potential prelude to bondage. A dictatorship that forces us to behave immorally and holds our religion up to ridicule in the eyes of the world. (If you doubt that , then you didn’t see the episode of “Sopranos,” in which a rabbi hires a hit man to beat up a recalcitrant husband.) Is this the face of Judaism we want to present to the world?

What can we do, you say, dear readers? After all, we’re not rabbis. Well, I’ll tell you. The next time some yeshiva or other religious institution comes knocking at your door, ask them what their attitude is towards solving the problem of agunot, and how do they feel about Rabbi Morgenstern. If they don’t have an answer that’s satisfactory, or they simply don’t understand the question, put away your checkbook. Why would you want to help raise another generation of Torah scholars who are, in the words of one of Rabbi Morgenstern’s supporters, Rabbi Moshe Shlomo Antelman: “incompetent , gutless, uncreative Rabbis who sometimes act in the mistaken belief that they are doing G-d’s work, when in effect, they are strengthening the locks of the [agunah’s] prison door. As Jeremiah complained: “The Torah experts did not know me” (2:8).

“The worst lock of all, “ writes Rabbi Antelman, “is the frumkeit (piety) lock, designed by members of the chumra (stricture) of the month club, who are programmed to think it is okay to keep an agunah locked up because of their own excessive piety.” The heter key unlocks her, simply by doing what Rabban Gamaliel did: using Rabbinic power to change even a Divine command if will prevents suffering and cure injustice.

Happy Pesach. May we deserve to see every agunah freed the next time we sit down to celebrate the holiday of freedom. And may all of us have the great privilege of joining together with Rabbi Morgenstern and Rabbi Rackman in bringing about such a sanctification of G-d’s name.

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