“Ma Nishtana?” The first two words at the beginning of “The Four Questions”, traditionally asked by the youngest child attending the Passover Seder.
“Why is tonight different from all other nights?”
This year, as I prepare for the seder, commemorating Jewish redemption from enslavement, I find myself asking, ‘why is this movement different from all other movements that came before it?’
As an academic, I’ve been observing and assessing the activist and grassroots movements around the abuse that is get (Jewish divorce) refusal since I began my research over a decade ago.
As I watch the cause of get refusal being taken up by “influencers” on Instagram, I’m asking if it is truly different and unprecedented?
Disclaimer: I support women’s empowerment and when women lift other women that must be celebrated. When it exacts a get, all the more so (even when the self-promotion of some influencers is also on the agenda). To free one woman is to free her parents, her children, her future children and their children, even entire communities.
Having said that, I assert that this “insta-advocay” is not actually distinct, revolutionary or unprecedented, it’s part of a longstanding tradition. And, rather than crediting the current “influencers” for their social media vigilantism, the spotlight would be better placed on stressing that shaming is a Band-Aid and not a cure.
In the early 1900s, Der Forverts, or The Jewish Daily Forward, which was one of the first national newspapers in the United States, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers, published a semi-regular feature titled, A Galeriye fon Farshvandene Mener, or Gallery of Vanished Husbands. Keneder Adler (also known as Keneder Odler, The Canadian Eagle or The Jewish Daily Eagle) picked up a number of these throughout the early 1900s.
These features would serve as ‘wanted ads’ for husbands who had disappeared (often returning to the ‘old country’ from which they recently immigrated), abandoning their wives and children. The communities stepped in, cared for these families, and took creative initiatives, using the media of the day, to publicly shame and shed light on this issue, forcing ‘vanished husbands’ to take responsibility and do right by their families. This is actually the ‘classic’ agunah situation- a woman chained to her marriage, unable to move on because the whereabouts of her husband is unknown and so she remains married to him without a get.
What we are seeing today is a re-imagined, rebooted version of a venerable tradition. Perhaps the ‘type’ of agunah has changed, but the methods remain the same. Today, women are openly refused a get by recalcitrant men whose whereabouts is known making them more accurately ‘mesuravot get’, women refused a get.
The modern-day ‘insta stories’ and ‘hashtags’ so clearly hearken back to the originals- the innovative ‘wanted ads’ from well over 100 years ago. Those were unprecedented, revolutionary and distinct and it would be remiss not to point that out.
Going much further back, Rabbeinu Tam of the 12th century introduced communities to kherem, traditional acts taken to isolate men who refused to grant a get, such as ostracism, including banning them from synagogues and communal establishments. The critique of traditional kherem, is that abusive husbands can move, joining new communities or synagogues easily, leaving their bad behavior behind them, like the vanished absconders of the past.
“E-shaming”, a term I coined in my doctoral work in relation to the agunah issue, reverses this effect, so that husbands, too, are chained to their choices to chain wives by cutting across boundaries and networks of affiliation.
For centuries, history has shown us, using the technology of the day has served as a powerful tool in cases of get refusal and we must use every tool in our toolbox. This nexus of get refusal and technology has, for many years, re-empowered the traditional kherem mechanism with the objective of encouraging unwilling husbands to willingly grant gets making a traditional tool which was criticized as being virtually obsolete in a global world, into an expedient, digital tool of the 20th, and now 21st century, and beyond. This is not novel.
It’s important to recognize that the current, trendy movement by today’s “social media influencers” is standing on the shoulders of those who preceded them. In Canada: Evelyn Brook, Norma Joseph, the Get Law Committee, and Sharon Shore. In the United States: Blu Greenberg, Rivka Haut and Susan Aranoff, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi Jeremy Stern and the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA). In Israel: Alice Shalvi, Sharon Shenhav, Yad La’Isha, Rachel Levmore and Ruth Halperin Kaddari. This is far from an exhaustive list.
I stress the importance of acknowledging the history and the real influencers behind today’s movement because it needs to be clear to mesuravot get and communities at large that the movement has a strong foundation that will endure long past this ‘insta-trend’, when the influencers will have to return to promoting their products and finding more followers.
So, Ma Nishtana? Not that much.
Rather than celebrating the ‘new’ social media vigilantism or a ‘legitimate use of cancel culture’, the media covering the movement, and the movement itself, should highlight that while shaming is highly effective at times, it is actually only a treatment for the symptoms, but not a cure. While we must use it as one of the many tools in our toolbox (along with pre-nups and other halakhic remedies), not every agunah feels comfortable with e-shaming. Furthermore, e-shaming may not exact a get in every case.
The real story should not only be online and not only in the papers, but must be in day schools, yeshivas, synagogues, marriage classes (chosson/kallah classes) and throughout our communities. The real story is challenging the notion that a get is negotiable! This was never a halakhic principle, this was learned behavior. Just like we learned it, we must un-learn it.
As long as men assert their rights to abuse their wives, as long as parents and siblings support their abusive sons and brothers, as long as men aid and abet other recalcitrant men, online influencers can only go so far. Managing, rather than solving, the phenomenon of get refusal is like playing a game of ‘Whac-A-Mole”.
That this trendy wave of activism has had success must be celebrated, but in reality, this wave of activism is not ground-breaking and when the influencers get back to their regularly scheduled programming and the tidal wave of trendy activism subsides, women need to know that there have always been and will continue to be real-world influencers and organizations who have dedicated themselves to this issue. Mesuravot get were not alone before Instagram and they won’t be alone when other issues begin to trend.
This year they are chained, next year, let them be free, “Hashata avdei l’shana haba’ah bnei chorin.”
Dr. Yael C.B. Machtinger is a Law and Society professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and is working on her first book having conducted the first comprehensive, qualitative study of Jewish divorce refusal and the first comparative study between Toronto and New York. Contact her at [email protected]