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February 28, 2018 by

Why I Am Observing International Agunah Day

Painting of Esther by Edwin Long, 1878.

Painting of Esther by Edwin Long, 1878.

In a luxurious bedroom in an elegant estate somewhere in Iran thousands of years ago, a woman lies on a velvet chaise. Bedecked in jewels and the finest silks, she’s trapped. In a marriage to a man she never chose, forced to play to his whims and go only when she is summoned, she has no agency in her life. Her gilded cage is the only life she knows.

In Israel, America and throughout the world today, in spaces far less luxurious, women are similarly trapped. The first woman is a Queen, Esther of the story of Purim, trapped in an unwanted marriage with the king of Persia; the others are women around the world. But no matter how silky the sheets, the pain is still paramount.

When Purim approaches, our conversation centers around the miraculous shift from despondency to hope; from mourning to joy. The term used in the scroll of Esther is wonderfully alliterative: “Venahapoch hu!” And it flipped over. Turns right around. We talk about Purim as being topsy turvy, and that’s why it’s traditional to dress in costume, make irreverent plays (Purim shpiels) and even ridiculous words of Torah (Purim Torah). It’s about, to quote my senior year high school essays, highlighting the absurdity of the issue. The Jews were a minority people, on the verge of cultural genocide. An unpredictable plot twist occurs—a queen (female! Of all people!) obtains a place of power, and then the gallows that were intended for Mordechai were used to hang his enemy instead.

In the world we live in now, where so much is absurd and inane, I’m praying that the energy of Purim helps us turn things right side up.

We live in a world where, for reasons tied up in ancient feudal systems and societal balances of power, men have had structural power over women for millennia. In the scheme of things, the Jewish systems of power, while designed originally to be slightly more humanitarian than their ancient counterparts, continue to define the lives of thousands who abide by this ancient set of laws, even in areas of civil life.

Such as marriage.

Which is where the absurdity comes in.

In Jewish law, the granting of a gett (divorce document) is completely one-sided, and may only be issued by the husband. While it is necessary for the woman to accept it, too, the onus is on him to provide it. Until she has a gett, a woman in Jewish law cannot remarry for fear her children will be bastardized according to tradition. Men, of course, are free to marry multiple partners according to the ancient laws, and so feel less bound by this concern. In a world where domestic abuse is all too common, it’s not unusual for men to leave their wives waiting years, even decades, before granting the divorce papers in a Jewish court of law (Beit din). Whether it’s simply out of apathy, a desire to ensure the outcomes of any civil or mediated agreements go their way, or sheer spite and a continuation of previous abuse patterns, it’s obvious that according to the way the system currently works, men will always have an upper hand.

There are band aids, as modern halachists attempt to work within a system already so fundamentally broken. In Israel, there are female to’anot, advocates, who act as halachic lawyers to speak in court when the male rabbis are likely to ignore the pleas of women. In the United States, organizations such as ORA propose the halachic prenup, signed before a wedding as a legal civil document stating that in the case of a recalcitrant husband withholding a divorce, he will be fined for every day of withholding.

Very nice, but not enough.

Not enough, because only in the Hebrew language is there a word for this horrific status of women: Agunah. Literally, chained. Chained to a marriage that is no longer active, to a husband no longer part of their lives, to a patriarchal system that destroys their future hopes of another marriage, a renewed partnership, possible children.

On Purim, we celebrate the victory that came about through the tenacity and strength of another chained woman: Queen Esther. Married to the king following the Persian version of the Bachelor, she spends seven years according to Midrash (rabbinic literature) in this miserable existence, before she has her chance to see the purpose of her placement, to advocate for her people.

Im hacharesh tacharishi,” “if you will remain silent at this time,” her uncle Mordechai implores her to act, reminding Esther to speak up, to seize the day.

To take this opportunity, which he reminds her is likely the reason for which she was born and came into royalty. Anyone can be a heroine, Mordechai reminds Esther, somewhat harshly. If you don’t do it, someone else will. But this is why you’re here. Don’t let that chance go by.

Esther responds with an answer even more powerful. She acknowledges her task but reminds Mordechai that it’s not an individual role: it’s a communal one. That she will go to the king, but first, the entire town of Shushan must gather to fast and pray on her behalf. “And if I am forfeited… So it shall be forfeited.” Literally, “and if I am lost… I shall be lost.”

The Fast of Esther traditionally occurs the day before Purim, to commemorate her prayer and her plea. In recent years, it has become the International Day of the Agunah, a moment for advocating for the silenced. A day for speaking up on behalf of the women living in our communities still under the chains of their former husbands. Many are not known to us. They might appear happy, put together, like they’ve moved on—but few know the pain inside of a soul still tethered, a heart not yet free.

International Agunah Day was established to give voice to those trapped women, to show awareness and provide solidarity.

Esther’s reminder not to be silent by Mordechai is a harsh one, and one that I experienced several years ago.

In my then-new neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a woman was on her deathbed but remained without a gett from her recalcitrant husband. “Every Agunah is my sister,” went the tagline as Facebook groups sprung up and awareness reached its peak. People prayed for her release, so in heaven her soul could be free. But it was not to be. When she passed, weeks later, it was time. A friend of mine jumped into active mode, defying threats to her personal safety to stand up and march against the former husband and the synagogue that employed him in Brooklyn. As I joined in support, my tongue felt heavy and my throat was clogged.

I was raised in the depths of the Orthodox community, the daughter and granddaughter of rabbis. I’d always defended rabbinic decisions until then, even as a feminist. I truly didn’t believe there were people actively scheming against women. Rabbis have found loopholes for everything else, from timers on electricity over Shabbat to a shoe-spitting ceremony so widows don’t marry their brothers in law. Why the silence over the gett?

When I attended that march, I felt my voice stick in my throat. “Only change will unchain,” they chanted, yet only a squeak erupted from my throat. I was unfamiliar with speaking my truth, afraid of repercussions if I made my feelings known. My heart was locked closed, my throat was a graveyard, and I had no connection between my head and my gut.

But I still showed up, and prayed with my feet. That day was a turning point for me. It was a day that I later saw become a pivotal shift in how I related to my friends and community, how I spoke up about my feelings and beliefs related to Orthodox Judaism, and how I honored my truth in spirit and in Torah. I’ve since written countless articles from feminist perspectives on Judaism, and I’m unafraid to criticize the rabbinic patriarchy for the systems in place—out of apathy, not antipathy!—that have caused undue harm to myself and others.

Esther was asked not to be silent. So she stepped forward. But first, she asked everyone to join with her.

And today, I’m asking the same.

My sister is an agunah. I’ve been writing about this for three years, but it’s taken until now for her to feel comfortable telling her own friends that yes, four years after separating from her husband, she is still a bound woman. #Unchainmyheart is the hashtag for a campaign that reads, “Every Agunah is my sister.” Yes, my sister is an agunah. She has rebuilt her life after years of pain in her marriage, but nobody is aware of the pain that still lurks as she feels her energetic body, her soul, tied up in the soul of another to whom she no longer shares a life. This crisis, this piece of asinine upside-down topsy-turviness can hit anyone. No Rabbinic connections can protect you as long as there is a man, somewhere, somehow, who refuses to honor your basic right of autonomy, and will use the laws against you.

This Ta’anit Esther, I’m waiting for Purim. I’m waiting for it all to turn upside down. I’m waiting for the women, and the men too, to listen to the words “hacharesh tacharishi” “If you will be silent”— and stand up for truth. I’m waiting for the change that will unchain.

Three years ago, when I marched for the cause of Agunahs everywhere, I learned to open my voice and advocate not only for women everywhere, but for myself. I found a passion deep within me I hadn’t known. Because when we advocate for our sisters and the women around us, we shift this world from one of patriarchy and systematic power abuse into one of collaboration, connection, advocacy and change.

Today is International Agunah day. As we all stand in solidarity with agunahs, there are things you can do. And while I rarely use this space to share ideas, today I’m asking on a personal note.

Volunteer with ORA or other organizations that support women against gett refusers. Pro bono lawyers, accountants, mediators are much needed. Donate your money to them. Support organizations that help the vulnerable in your community, especially single moms.

Listen. Pay attention to the unheard voices in your community. When you see a mama alone with four kids, even if her nails are done and the kids all have clean faces, don’t smile and say, “wow, I don’t know HOW you do it,” ask her how you can support her. Allow her to fall apart for a minute. Give her a shoulder to cry on. Recognize her burdens and for a moment, help her carry it. We all carry this together.

 Dedicated in prayer for the unchaining and unbounding of Chana bat Rivkah Leiba.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.