To shame or not to shame?

'Banquet of Esther and Achashverosh' by Jan Victors (c 1645)
'Banquet of Esther and Achashverosh' by Jan Victors (c 1645)

Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, marked International Agunah Day, the purpose of which is to publicize the plight of agunot, “chained” women who are not able to obtain a get, a religious divorce, from their husbands.

The name “Esther” is related to the Hebrew word “hester,” meaning hidden. For nine years, Esther guarded the secret of her religious and familial heritage. As the Talmud notes, she “hid her words.” The Purim story heroine was thus kept silent.

How does this connect to this International Agunah Day?

Like Esther, the voices of agunot have been hidden and silenced. Consequently, when a mesurevet-get, a woman whose husband has refused to grant her a get, can voice her void, we must embrace it. And while some might find the act of shaming men who withhold gets shameful in and of itself, I contend that any opportunity to empower mesuravot-get and recast the characters, making abusive husbands the object of shame, must be embraced.


“E-shaming,” is a constructive, re-imagined, rebooted version of traditional acts taken to shame men who refuse to grant gets. Technology can help remedy instances of get-refusal by exposing abusive husbands as those who should be ashamed. Intensified use of technology in our digital age offers a fresh take on remedying this deep-rooted phenomenon.

E-shaming, a term I coined in relation to the agunah issue, is more beneficial than other grassroots remedies because it cuts across boundaries and networks of affiliation. The critique of traditional cherem, or excommunication, is that abusive husbands can join new communities or synagogues easily, leaving their bad behaviour behind them. The effects of cherem are not as severe or impactful as they were centuries, or even decades, ago when moving was more onerous and expensive and congregations less prevalent. E-shaming, reverses this effect, so that husbands, too, are chained to their choices to chain wives.

Most importantly, this nexus of get refusal and technology enables women to be active participants in navigating complex legal orders, simultaneously challenging the imagery of the passive victims they are portrayed as. Transforming mesuravot-get from passive, helpless victims to active participants in campaigns to exact gets is momentous, not shameful. Social media has become a platform whereby mesuravot-get can recast the mistaken perceptions about them and assert their agency (something we should celebrate as feminists, by the way).

That said, not every agunah would feel comfortable with e-shaming. Individuals must be respected, and public campaigns are not always in everyone’s best interests.

However, in Canada, e-shaming could be particularly potent, since no other remedies, including a viable, legal and halachically endorsed prenuptial agreement, have yet to emerge. My objective is to alert the Jewish community to the e-shaming phenomenon and the transformative successes it has been known to produce in challenging dominant perceptions about agunot as weak, passive, submissive victims, and in challenging dominant normative reactions by communities which deny the existence of get-refusal altogether.


E-shaming contributes to the unsilencing and self-narration of mesuravot get, and I welcome giving them a platform from which to tell their stories. Most of the women I have interviewed in the course of my work, including dozens in New York and Toronto, described the shame they feel, having endured abuse and accusations they wronged their families by failing at marriage and disappointing the community and the marriage ideal that the religion propagates. If empowerment can be achieved through e-shaming, that is noteworthy, and we mustn’t be ashamed of it. We must use every tool in our toolbox.

Let us not stand idly by, allowing the everyday heroines of our generation to remain hidden, to be silenced as Esther was. Let us reveal the hidden by empowering agunot and their narratives.

Yael C.B. Machtinger is a PhD candidate in socio-legal studies at York University in Toronto.