Rabbi Michael Chernick
The ongoing existence of agunot in the aftermath of World War I and the inadequate responses of modern rabbinical authorities to the unjust and painful situation of these women were critical factors that impelled Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan to move beyond a halakhic system and begin to articulate a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. In his 1936 essay “The Status of Woman in Jewish Law,” Kaplan analyzed ways that halakhah mandates women to second-class status, most especially around marriage (“it is in the marriage relationship chiefly, where the woman’s inferior status is fraught with tragic consequences to her”) and divorce (“the woman experiences the worst effects of her status when she can no longer continue to live with her husband”). After assessing contemporaneous efforts to resolve this problem as either regressive or ineffective, Kaplan concluded that halakhah was an insufficient medium of repair and declared: “[S]ocial justice, rather than immutable precedent, must govern the civic life of Jewry and underlie…juridical institutions…”
More than 80 years later, contemporary Reconstructionist practice builds on Kaplan’s original analysis and falls squarely within the feminist critique articulated by Rabbi Chernick, which points to why for most Reconstructionists his solution feels ultimately inadequate. In a post-halakhic approach, Jewish divorce becomes an opportunity to enact ritual in the service of the spiritual and emotional transition of the people involved. The focus becomes meaning seeking rather law observance.
The problem of agunot is eliminated by empowering women as actors within this ritual, preferably in an egalitarian procedure where both partners divorce each other rather than investing all power in one individual (historically and halakhically, the man in a heterosexual relationship). In the instance when a man refuses to give a woman a get, she is then empowered to initiate on her own (and vice versa—post-halakhic Judaism has also created the possibility of agunim and must accommodate same-sex Jewish marriages). Since single-initiated divorce can be disempowering to the person who does not agree, the Reconstructionist movement has also created a ritual of release from relationship to accompany civil divorce—not identical[...]
Criticism of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is nothing new. It has often been voiced in the RRFEI newsletter and resources, as well as in Hiddush’s materials. It covers a myriad of issues, which in recent years include its delegitimization of Modern Orthodox attempts at addressing the Rabbinate’s failures in the areas of conversion and kashrut certification.
Developments in the last few days regarding the Kotel controversy bring me to focus again on the Chief Rabbinate, pointing to the fact that the institution itself stands in sheer conflict with the notions of democracy and the rule of law in Israel, as well as the realities and interests of the Jewish people worldwide. A lengthy document presented by the Chief Rabbinate this week manifests a real threat to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, which is frequently underestimated and misunderstood by both Israelis and Diaspora Jewish leadership.
For the benefit of RRFEI members, the original 13 page document submitted by Chief Rabbi Lau’s team, in Hebrew, can be download HERE. The document is intended for public consumption and was presented at a Knesset hearing. It is presents the Chief Rabbinate’s position on the pending Supreme Court case regarding the Kotel and the demand that the Rabbinate be allowed independent representation before the Supreme Court, rather than be represented by the Israeli AG who represents all agencies of the state.
In assessing the threat emanating from the Chief Rabbinate, beyond its attempt to dictate norms of worship for all Jews at national sites like the Kotel, one should only look at the Rabbinate’s recent initiative to establish a global ‘Jewish lineage’ database (already in motion, funded by the State of Israel) and Chief Rabbi Yosef’s public lashing out at Rabbi Dweck in London, who dared to present the complexity of Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality and the need for sensitivity and embracing of homosexuals. Chief Rabbi Yosef came out with a public pronouncement, declaring that he is “amazed and angry at the words of nonsense and heresy that were said about the foundations of our faith in our Torah.”
The selection of quotes below from the Rabbinate?s lengthy document will illustrate the wide chasm between its views and those associated with a democratic society. I dare say that no RRFEI members would tolerate the mindset and demands of the Rabbinate, if they were made in the USA or elsewhere. As you[...]
Rabbi Michael Chernick
This special series of RRFEI articles features an original work by Orthodox Rabbi Michael Chernick, Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at HUC-JIR, New York, with responses from Rabbis Mark Washofsky, Elliot Dorff and Daniel Siegel. Rabbi Washofsky’s affiliation is Reform; Rabbi Dorff’s is Conservative and Rabbi Siegel is with Jewish Renewal.
We hope you will respond and air your voice also on this essential issue of egalitarianism and halakhah. (I want to note that we invited two women scholars to respond, and neither had the time; but we hope for responses from our women colleagues and a robust discussion of these ideas.)
As we all know, being a “chained” woman (agunah) causes untold suffering, and justice demands we create a solution to this oppression. You will see in today’s article by Professor Michael Chernick an analysis of the problem, a review of the historical remedies and suggestions for moving forward.
In addition, we are bringing you responses from 3 current halakhic authorities:
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Freehoff Professor of Jewish Law and Practice at HUC-JIR Cincinnati; Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; and Rabbi Daniel Siegel, Founding Director, Integral Halachah Institute.
Shall we stay within the halakhic system to resolve the issues, or turn to civil courts? What is the appropriate role for civil courts in the Diaspora, and what is their role in the Jewish State? Some believe there should not be civil courts in Israel, that all law must be according to halakhah. Some would have that law change in structure, for example: that women be able to not only receive a get but give one as well, that both parties in a divorce should receive a divorce decree (get) from their spouse.
Clearly not only has the role of the streams of Judaism not been resolved in Israel, but the questions of which legal system to follow: civil or Jewish, who decides on halakhah, and how innovative can halakhah be in the modern context demand resolution.
RRFEI and Hiddush prefer a separation between religion and state, and in the case of marriage law, the possibility of civil marriage and divorce for those who choose. Clearly, as you will read in these articles, reasonable and reasoned rabbis may disagree,[...]
Rabbi Michael Chernick
In its discussion of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 the Torah frames the entire procedure in the masculine form. The Sages of the Mishnaic and Talmudic period understood this to mean that the right of divorce was the husband’s and not the wife’s. Further, in the formative period of Jewish law, a husband divorced his wife at his discretion, but she could be divorced against her will (Mishnah Yebamot 14:1). In the eleventh century a takkanah ascribed to Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz prevented women from being divorced against their will. Nevertheless, the husband’s agreement to divorce was still a sine qua non for the get to be legal.
Nevertheless, the problem of what I will call get-agunah, a woman being “chained” to a dead marriage for lack of a halakhic divorce, was not a practical problem. The Sages of the Talmudic period recognizing the inequities inherent in Jewish divorce law developed two strategies for coping with divorces on a whim and recalcitrance. Divorces on a whim were impeded by the creation of the ketubah which put a high price on divorce for the husband. When it came to recalcitrance, the Sages handled it by allowing the courts to coerce the husband, physically if necessary, until he said, “I wish to divorce my wife.” Despite the fact that this was not a freely willed decision, which was a required for a legal divorce, for the Sages the mere statement of “I want to divorce my wife” was enough.
The need for the husband’s willingness to divorce is not the only complication for Jewish women. Though polygamy was outlawed among Ashkenazi Jews in the 10th century and subsequently by most Sephardic and Oriental Jewish communities, the basic law of Judaism, the Torah, allowed it. It did not, however, allow polyandry. The children of a man who sired children with a wife he married while halakhically married to another woman were perfectly “kosher” because his marriages to both women were legal. Children born to a woman without a get were the products of an adulterous relationship, which made them illegitimate mamzerim, prohibited by Torah law from marrying most other Jews.
None of this would be a problem if rabbinic courts in most modern nations had the power of coercion. But they don’t. Western nations, which separate Church and State, reserve that power to themselves. Due to[...]
Rabbi Michael Chernick
Rabbi Michael Chernick, my colleague at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has offered a comprehensive and thorough summary of the issues surrounding the halakhic pre-nuptial agreement. I find in it absolutely nothing to critique and very little to add. I do, however, have three brief comments, which are based upon a recent entry in the blog of the Solomon B. Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah (http://blog.huc.edu/freehof/2016/02/29/the-halakhic-prenup-a-great-idea-mostly/).
1. Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good. Even if it passes halakhic muster (and, as Rabbi Chernick notes, it has encountered strong opposition from the haredi rabbinical community), the halakhic prenup does not solve the agunah problem. A recalcitrant husband can still refuse to issue a get to his wife so long as he can either evade the jurisdiction of the beit din or is willing and able to bear the costs imposed upon him by the agreement. Even with the prenup, the morally outrageous problem of the “chained” wife still exists under Orthodox Jewish law; thus, were we to judge the agreement by its ability to solve that problem, we would have to call it a failure. Still, we should not ignore the possibility the agreement can bring relief to some, and perhaps many Jewish women. Pragmatism is not a bad thing, and on that basis the Jewish world ought to welcome the determination of centrist Orthodox rabbis to utilize this measure as a way of doing what good they can.
2. Don’t Stop Working for a Real Solution. Let us not lose sight of this fundamental reality: the very existence of the agunah problem is an intolerable stain upon the reputation of Jewish law for equity and justice. The prenup, which is certainly better than nothing, is, again, not a solution to the agunah problem, which exists because traditional Jewish law does not empower the wife to divorce her husband. Rabbi Chernick refers to a variety of actual halakhic solutions that have been suggested over the years. I call them “solutions” because they would effectively terminate a marriage in the event of get-recalcitrance, with no need to resort to financial or other pressure – which may or may not work – against the husband. If any sort of “pressure” is needed, it ought to be exerted upon the Orthodox rabbinical[...]
Rabbi Michael Chernick
Rabbi Chernick has done a masterful job in describing the prenuptial agreement now in use in some segments of the Orthodox community, together with its strengths and weaknesses. To the extent that it has saved women from becoming agunot through the very threat of the husband being forced to pay a huge sum of money per day for refusing to give his wife a get, it is to be praised. In the United States, however, with a strong separation of religion and state, I wonder whether the civil courts will honor a prenuptial agreement of the parties to use the Orthodox court to settle their monetary disputes once they realize that what is involved is not only a monetary dispute but confirming a divorce in a religious act. New York courts in the 1970s varied widely as to how they[...]
Rabbi Michael Chernick
As a new member of RRFEI, I am honoured by the opportunity to contribute to this learned discussion.
At first, I endorsed and used pre-nuptial agreements, seeing in them exactly what Rabbi Chernick sees. Over time, however, I became unsatisfied with this and the other options he lists. My concerns with seeing both pre-nuptials and civil marriage in Israel as solutions to the problem of divorce inequality and the agunah include:
The vision of Hiddush and the Rabbis for Religious Freedom and Equality in Israel opens with these words:
Imagine an Israel where Judaism blossoms in all its nuanced shades and colors; where religious and secular movements flourish side-by-side and those who explore beyond Judaism in search of meaning are able to forge new spiritual paths within Judaism.
We are the only organization in the Jewish world with the single mission of bringing pluralistic Judaism to the world’s only Jewish state. We take no sides in the competition between religious or secular Jewish movements. We believe that Israel is the State of all of the Jewish people who choose to live there, and we seek to enable Judaism to flourish by removing the interference or official state sponsorship of one stream or philosophy of Judaism over another. All Jews who believe Israel to be the homeland not only of Jews but of Judaism have a place among us.
A debate has flourished recently over ordination of women in the Orthodox world. Many of us possess strong opinions one way or another. Indeed, these ideas cross the streams. There are individuals within all of the movements who stake their claim on either side. Officially, according to the recent OU statement, the Orthodox movement opposes ordination of women as rabbis who issue piskei din, while the more liberal movements officially favor women’s ordination to be called by the title rabbi.
But the debate is considerably more nuanced within all of the streams. There are Haredim and Orthodox Jews who favor women’s ordination, and indeed there are women who function on a practical level as though they hold smicha. We used to say about Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz, affectionately called just Nehama by all, that were she a man she’d have been Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel. Clearly the ferment in the Jewish world over this highly politicized issue roils, and feelings sometimes even set friends against one another.
Certainly we as individuals have our separate preferences and practices. But RRFEI has no dog in this fight. Our sole concern is that all of the Jewish people have the equal opportunity to practise Judaism according to their belief and conscience in the one place in the world dedicated to Jewish history and destiny. Judaism in Israel must be freed of state interference or intervention. The State of Israel must not favor one Jewish stream over another. To paraphrase Evelyn Beatrice Hall, ?I disapprove of what[...]
Liel Leibovitz’s “How to Finally Get Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall” can be found HERE.
Rabbi Uri Regev’s response follows below:
As Liel Leibowitz (LL) suggests, the non-Orthodox movements should broaden their appeal and avoid unnecessary conflicts. Nevertheless, I have strong reservations as to the specifics of LL’s perspective on what is “unnecessary conflict” and *who* the appeal should be broadened to include. I fear that LL, in as much as his credentials are impressive, may not be as authoritative on the relevant questions involving the Kotel controversy and the politics of religion & state in Israel, as he assumes in prescribing to the non-Orthodox movements how they should conduct their affairs.
LL suggests that the impasse over the Western Wall Agreement (WWA) was generated by the Nov. 2 demonstration by liberal North American rabbis, but this had very little to do with it. The impasse was ironically precipitated in party by the victorious Torah service at the Wall celebrated on February 25 during the CCAR (American Reform Judaism’s rabbinic umbrella) convention in Israel, which, by chance or Divine providence, took place shortly after the WWA was announced. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership dug its feet into the ground at that point, and demanded that PM Netanyahu not implement the agreement. This was not a regular case of slow-paced Israeli decision making. Rather, the WWA was an exceptional case of an agreement slow in the making (more than 3 years of intensive deliberations), which received tacit endorsement from the political leadership of the Haredi parties, as well as the Rabbi of the Western Wall. It was achieved because it was viewed by the Haredi operatives as the lesser of all evils. What neither they nor the PM took into consideration was the extent to which this agreement would play into the hands of disgruntled Haredi rabbinic leaders in both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities who were looking for an opportunity to challenge the movements’ leadership, as well as the sensationalist urges of some key Haredi media outlets that refused to hold their peace in the face of an agreement.
While LL probably does have experience with “buearucratic Israel,” as he claims, this conflict has nothing to do with that, but rather with a theological conflict, which can only be won by “hard-sell tactics,” which LL objects to.
The more than 3 years of[...]
Originally posted in the Jerusalem Post [LINK]
While much international and political discourse focused in the past few days on the “Outposts Bill,” another highly controversial bill was also moving forward in the Knesset, having obtained the approval of the Ministerial Legislative Committee, and may come up for a preliminary vote Wednesday. It too has attracted political, legal and international attention, but has also generated heated religious argument. I’m referring to the Muezzin Bill (a more appropriate name than its formal title: the “Bill Forbidding the use of Public Address Systems in Houses of Worship”).
This bill, which aims at banning the use by mosques of public address systems for the daily call to prayer, is a masquerade, which all participants are party to. Nobody really thinks that those who proposed this bill aren’t actually motivated by nationalistic and religious considerations (the bill’s explanatory note states its intention to forbid “the use of PA systems to call worshipers, to convey religious or nationalistic messages, and sometimes even words of incitement”). Likewise, some of the bill’s opponents disregard the real disturbance muezzins cause for non-Muslims and present the issue as an exclusively racist and anti-Muslim initiative and therefore not requiring reassessment.
A closer look at the matter reveals that restrictions on use of PA systems by mosques exist in many countries, including Arab states, and therefore it is clear that this bill is not simply the invention of fevered minds seeking to harm Islam and its followers in Israel. On the other hand, there seems to be no real and definitely no urgent need for new legislation relating to noise pollution, because current law prohibits unusual and unreasonable noise levels. Therefore one would assume that those concerned with noise pollution would first attempt to deal with the nuisance, such as it is, using the legal tools available to them rather than promoting a new law. Failure to do so rightly leads many to suspect ulterior motives.
On a personal note, I returned a few days ago from New York, and the apartment I stayed in there overlooks the largest mosque in the city. Many Muslim worshipers attend it, but the local residents do not hear loud calls from the top of its minaret. Clearly the local Muslim community understands and accepts the required norms of coexistence, as well as the concepts of mutual consideration and tolerance. At the same time,[...]