Rabbi Michael Chernick
In 1776 , in Germany, a young man named, Isaac, son of Eliezer Neiburg of Mannheim, was engaged to marry Leah, daughter of Jacob Guenzhausen of Bonn. In the week leading up to the wedding, Isaac seemed pre-occupied exhibiting some strange behavior. The wedding, however, took place in the groom’s home town with much celebration, on the 8th of Elul 5526, August 14, 1766, and all seemed to bode well.
A week later, on Saturday night, after they had spent several days in Bonn, Isaac Neiburg told the community rabbi, that his life was in danger and that he must leave Bonn immediately, but in order not to leave his young wife an agunah, he wished to give her a divorce. He did admit that he had not found the bride to his liking, but noted that he was not divorcing her for this reason, rather because of the mortal danger threatening him. Rabbi Copenhagen’s attempts to dissuade him were to no avail, and therefore it was agreed by both sides that Isaac Neiburg would divorce his wife. Financial matters were agreed to, including payment of expenses by the husband, and Isaac consented to everything. Since there was not a recognized rabbinical court in Bonn, it was decided to turn to the rabbinical court in Cleves, a city on the border between Germany and Holland.
The rabbi of Cleves, Rabbi Israel Lipschuetz, met with both parties, and sanctioned the divorce and also a written monetary agreement, determining that Isaac was firmly resolved to give his wife a divorce, and that if it were not done on the spot his wife might be left an agunah.
Several weeks later it became known to the father of the groom that his son had divorced his wife and left the country. The father was incensed both because in his opinion his son had been forced to give a get, despite, in his words, “his delicate emotional state, and because the financial arrangements were to his disadvantage.” He turned to Rabbi Tevele Hess, who then turned to the rabbinical court of Frankfurt, a large and highly esteemed community, headed by Rabbi Abraham Abusch of Lissau, both of whom ruled that the get was indeed invalid.
What ensued was a 2 year heated and acrimonious debate that put two rabbinical bodies at odds with one another, with both Leah and Isaac, caught in the middle. Leah’s status kept changing, depending on the rabbinic ruling, from “divorced”
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