Yael Machtinger on how the plight of Israeli widows since Oct. 7 plays a role in International Agunah Day on March 21

Yael C.B. Machtinger

On March 21, we observe two special events, the Fast of Esther, Ta’anit Esther, leading the way to the joyous holiday of Purim, and International Agunah Day, drawing attention to women anchored to dead marriages. These days of solemnity are appropriately linked. Biblical heroine, Esther, was forced into an unwanted marriage to King Ahasuerus, according to the Talmud.

For years, as an international expert on the intersections of civil and religious law and IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) in religious contexts, my research has focused on mesuravot get, women who are refused a get, the Jewish divorce document,  by recalcitrant husbands.

Most often, we know where the recalcitrants are and what they are trying to exact and coerce as leverage in exchange for the get. This has been the most common type of agunah in my lifetime. Still, agunah is an umbrella term for women anchored to dead marriages for numerous reasons.

A ‘classic’ agunah is a woman whose husband’s whereabouts or status is unknown and who is unable to grant a get, leaving his wife trapped. He has either gone missing, his death wasn’t witnessed, or there are no remains; hence a wife cannot be deemed a widow. This might include forced conversion of the husband to another religion starting as early as the Jewish exile from Israel after the destruction of the First Temple 586 BCE,  being sent to Siberian exile as early as the 17th century, abandoning his wife on the Lower East Side to return to the ‘home-country’ in the early 1900s, entering the Twin Towers on the morning of 9/11; or lack of cognitive capacity to issue a get.

For years, I thought about agunot who are mesuravot get, women held captive in marriages against their will, married to spouses who refuse to grant a get, not only on International Agunah Day, but each morning when I recited the blessing, matir assurim, to “free the captives”.

But, the world changed on Oct. 7. Matir assurim has new meaning.

I never imagined I would be thinking about actual captives when I recite morning blessings.

As a scholar of religious divorce refusal, I have spoken to hundreds of women worldwide and never thought I’d be writing about this type of agunah.

So on this Fast of Esther and International Agunah Day, let’s pay heed to the agunot in the shadows of Oct. 7. Women locked into wanted marriages, but locked in nonetheless.

There are a few categories to unpack:

  • ‘Classic’ Agunot– whose husbands’ bodies are missing but are understood or declared to be deceased.
  • Women whose husbands have been so severely injured that they may not recover and don’t have the cognitive capacity to grant a get.
  • Women whose husbands were killed who have not had children and who now must perform yibum/chalitza. (When a man dies without leaving any children, there is a requirement for his brother to marry the widow, yibum, or levirate marriage. If either party doesn’t want to marry the other, there is an alternative ceremony called chalitza.)
  • Women (and men) whose spouses are still being held hostage in Gaza, may they be speedily returned alive.

In relation to the first group, after researching and consulting with my colleagues in the field, primarily Pnina Omer, director of Yad LaIsha, as well as the Rackman Center (where I’m affiliated), Mavoi Satum, and others, there is no evidence, miraculously, of remaining ‘classic’ agunot resulting from Oct. 7.

To the credit of the rabbinic institutions (where credit is not always due), a special war tribunal to release agunot was rapidly established including Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, Rabbi Eliezer Igra a member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court (and candidate for next chief rabbi), and Rabbi Zvi Ben-Yaakov, another member of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, in conjunction with the army’s rabbinical court.

Exactly 50 years ago following the Yom Kippur war, Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Piron, the IDF’s chief rabbi, and Rabbi Gad Navon, deputy chief rabbi of the IDF, made extenuating efforts to free the Yom Kippur agunot. It is noteworthy, that at this point, there are no Oct. 7 agunot, particularly since it took years to release the over 1000 agunot of Yom Kippur.

When people were declared deceased (even without bodies), the resulting agunot were released. The special rabbinic wartime tribunal has done exceptional work in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

We don’t have data, and won’t for some time, regarding women whose husbands were severely injured in the war and are in a coma or suffered serious brain injuries. It’ll be a year, at least, until we’ll have information about such cases, and at least two or three years until they are referred for heterim, or permission to be released from their marriages and allowed to remarry.

It’s clear there will be an extremely high number of young widows who will have to go through the difficult chalitza process (removing a special shoe from her brother-in law, then spitting in his direction and reciting a special declaration, in front of a rabbinic court).

Yad LaIsha was in conversation with the IDF regarding this issue and their recommendations and protocols were incorporated. We can only hope that this sensitive process under these difficult circumstances won’t be taken advantage of by grieving men, who withhold the release of their sisters-in-law at a financial cost or other bargaining chip. I’ve come across such extortionate cases over the years in Toronto and New York in the course of my extensive work with agunot.

Chalitza can only be done three months after death (to ensure a wife is not pregnant) so it’s only recently that the first chalitza ceremonies resulting from Oct. 7 are being conducted. While painful, there is value in the process with the IDF Rabbinate. It is significant to widows’ mourning, healing, and eventual closure.

How can we connect the Purim story to Agunah Day this year, in light of Oct. 7 agunot?

If we revisit the megilla we meet Esther when she is quiet, passive and not in control of her own destiny. As the story unfolds, we see Esther actively finds her voice, shifting from an evasive, even apathetic character, eventually rising to the extraordinary task and with astute vision she recognizes and commands that the Jews be saved.

Contrary to the observation of genocidal Haman, that the Jews are “am mefozar umeforad” ,“a nation scattered and divided amongst the nations” (Esther 3:8), the response is “Lech knoss et kol hayehudim” “Go, gather together all the Jews” (Esther 4:16). It is in this moment, that she truly steps into leadership by taking personal risk. Esther unites the Jewish people and it’s only then, that her story and theirs begins to change.

She understood instinctively that where our divisiveness weakens us, our unity is our impenetrable strength. This was true in Persia when Haman wanted to destroy us and it is no less true today, in the shadows of Oct. 7 when Hamas wants to do the same.

This is also true in supporting agunot.

For us to support agunot, be they the ‘classic’ agunot of Oct. 7 or the more common mesuravot get, who are refused a get by recalcitrant husbands, we need to unite.

We need unity in a shared mission to solve this socio-legal problem and we need rabbinic leaders to guide us proactively and willingly as they are helping the agunot of Oct. 7. We need them to step into leadership like Esther and bring salvation to all agunot. If they don’t, others will bring salvation in their place, as Mordechai told Esther in her moment of apathy, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis” (4:14).

We don’t need the rabbis bullied, shamed or threatened into doing the right thing by Instagram influencers. We simply need them to be the leaders they can be and for which they reached such rabbinic greatness—as the rabbis were after the Yom Kippur war and the special rabbinic panel for Oct. 7 agunot.

In the meantime, we’ll gather together and unite. In the days ahead of the Fast of Esther, I will join other experts assembling at the Knesset to mark International Agunah Day, heeding Esther’s command, echoed again towards the end of the megilla to “gather themselves, together and stand for their life” (8:11).

We will discuss the plight of agunot, all kinds, but with special attention this year to the agunot in the shadows of Oct 7. We will debate the merits of having soldiers sign a divorce document before going off to war, as was done in the times of King David, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 56a; Ketubot 9b), and as was debated in the 1960s by Rav Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and Rav Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, Ashkenazi chief rabbi in the wake of the Six Day War and the tragic disappearance of the Dakar submarine with 69 IDF soldiers aboard. We will gather together and stand for life; for the lives of agunot.

So, on this International Agunah Day, and every day moving forward, when we recite the morning blessing, matir assurim, we must also think of the Oct. 7 agunot and of all those being held captive, against their will. May they be speedily released.

Dr. Yael C.B. Machtinger is an Azrieli International Postdoctoral Fellow at Bar Ilan Law School’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status and a Law and Society Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, working on her first book, a comparative study of Jewish divorce refusal between New York and Toronto. Contact her at [email protected]