The Male Agunah – The Untold Story

By: Esther Schonfeld, Esq. & Deena Kessler, Esq.

This week, I was fortunate and delighted to attend the wedding of a former client.  The wedding, an extremely lively and festive affair, was even more joyous because many in attendance had thought they would never watch this former client remarry.  My former client is one of the many who have been entangled in what has become known as the “Get crisis” – a situation where a religious divorce was being withheld for some sort of personal gain.  What makes this story so unusual is that my former client was not a woman.

When one thinks of an “Agunah”, a person chained to a failed marriage, one naturally thinks of a woman.  In fact, the idea of a man being chained to a failed marriage by a recalcitrant wife is often met by snickers and disbelief.  The reality, however, is no laughing matter.  There is an ever increasing segment of the Jewish community comprised of men who are being denied religious divorces by wives who refuse to cooperate in the Get process.  Often ashamed about the lack of control they are exerting over their own lives, these men suffer in silence, refusing to make the community aware of their plights.  These men, however, are no less deserving of our sympathy, empathy and assistance than are their female counterparts.

My former client, the now happy chosson, arrived at my office late one night for a consultation. Even to me, an experienced matrimonial attorney, his story was most horrifying.  Upon casual observation, the marriage looked like a real life Cinderella story.  The couple came from different worlds. The Husband, Jack (not his real name), a most eligible young man from a prominent and affluent family, was a professional with a promising, high profile career.  The wife, Jill (not her real name), was a beautiful and educated young woman from a poor family.  Both observant Orthodox Jews, who professed to be dedicated to raising a family in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, the pair was introduced by a shadchun, a matchmaker.  Soon thereafter, they married and soon thereafter welcomed the arrival of twins, a boy and a girl.  For the first few years, to the outside world, the pair seemed to have an idyllic existance until, suddenly and inexplicably, things went very wrong.

As I sat with Jack in my conference room, I was shocked as his story unfolded.  Jill, a beautiful young woman, who appeared to the outside world to be charming, charismatic and eloquent, was nothing less than a monster in the privacy of the marital home.  Jack explained that his seemingly docile young wife would often fly into uncontrollable fits of rage.  During these rages, her actions were impulsive, selfish and oftentimes violent.  On several occasions, she had maliciously shredded her husband’s  religious books while he was at work, cut his tefillin into pieces, attempted to choke him with his tzitzis, punched and slapped him across the face, purposefully woke him in the middle of the night by pouring a bucket of cold water on him, and refused to adhere to the laws of family purity, taharas ha’mishpacha.  When the husband urged and pleaded with his wife to address her inappropriate and troubling behavior, her response was always the same, “I am proud of myself.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred on the night Jack awoke to find his wife standing over him with scissors poised to cut off his beard.  While he had hoped to save his marriage, his wife’s steadfast refusal to seek help or attend marriage counseling, had led him to seek my counsel.  When I inquired from Jack what his wife would say had she been present at this meeting, he replied, “her distorted perception is that I spend too much time in shul or learning and I do not assist her enough with the household chores and with the care of our children.”  He also claimed that she would say that Jack had been physical with her, although he maintained that the only time he resorted to physicality was in self defense to violent assaults upon him by his wife. Eventually, the wife sought an order of protection in the Family Court on completely fabricated grounds, (the order of protection was dismissed after a hearing determined the wife’s claims of abuse to be baseless) and she abandoned her husband, taking with her their young children and thereafter refusing to permit Jack even the most minimal visitation.

Jack, understanding that halacha required him to seek a religious divorce through a Beth Din rather than in civil court, served several hazmanot, religious summonses, seeking the appearance of his wife before a Beth Din to give her a Get.  Jill refused to appear before the Beth Din and after serving three unanswered hazmanot, a siruv, a religious contempt order, was issued for the wife’s failure to respond.  Jill eventually hired an attorney who knew nothing about religious law and who made it clear that his client was never going to take a Get unless Jack agreed to meet each and every one of his wife’s completely outrageous demands.  Her demands, which far exceeded anything Jill would have received in a civil divorce proceeding or in a Beth Din, amounted to nothing less than extortion.

As a consequence of Jill’s clear refusal to cooperate, Jack received a heter to sue for divorce in civil court and retained my firm’s services in connection with his civil divorce action.  Time and again, Jill’s attorney was presented with settlement offers which were reasonable and in fact, exceeded what Jill would likely have received had the matter been tried in civil court.  These settlement offers were always refused.  Likewise, Jill remained steadfast in her refusal to accept a Get.

The matter continued to wind its way through the civil court system.  While possessing the power to grant a civil divorce even over the objection of one of the parties if grounds are proven, civil courts do to not have jurisdiction over religious divorces.  The United States, by virtue of our strict separation of church and state, leaves all matters religious in nature within the sole purview of the clergy.  Similarly, short of issuing a siruv, a Beth Din does not have the power to force a wife to accept a Get from her husband.  As such, Jack found himself in a Catch-22.  The civil courts could not force Jill to accept a Get, nor could the Beth Din.

Two years had passed since the husband had commenced his matrimonial action and the divorce trial in civil court was still months away in the case.  Jill remained immovable in her refusal to take a Get.  As such, while the civil divorce action progressed, Jack found himself unable to extricate himself from his religious marriage to Jill, and in the unusual position of requesting that the civil court apply the Get Law to his matrimonial action.  While outside the purview of this article, the Get Law would allow the Court to impose economic sanctions for a party’s refusal to remove all barriers to the other party’s remarriage, namely for refusing to give or receive a Get.

At this point, the case began to get ugly.  A trial concerning the custody of the young children was scheduled to take place.  Jack was accusing Jill of wrecking the marriage with severe physical, verbal and emotional abuse.  A slew of witnesses were scheduled to appear on Jack’s behalf, each presenting allegations portraying Jill as unfit mother by virtue of her mental instability and volatile temper.  Jill was prepared to counterattack with accusations that Jack was a religious fanatic, far more concerned with strict religious observance than with the well being of their children.

With so much time elapsed and his wife’s clear and unyielding position that she was never going to accept the Get, Jack was left with no choice but to attempt to get a heter maya rabbanim, consent of 100 rabbis.  A heter maya rabbanim allows a husband whose wife refuses to take a Get to be granted a Get without her participation in the process.  The procedure requires the husband to secure the consent of one hundred rabbis, and receive a heter for the religious divorce to proceed without the wife’s cooperation.  As expected, the procedure is complex, time consuming and costly.

Jack’s Rabbi, a truly clever and creative man, approached the wife and explained to her that if the husband must pay approximately $10,000 to secure a heter maya rabbanim, he would be seeking to recoup that expense from her.  The rabbi then appealed to Jill to reconsider her position and take the Get so as to avoid a battle over who should absorb the cost of the heter maya rabbanim.  Jack’s rabbi then told her that if she takes the Get voluntarily, without forcing Jack to resort to securing a heter, Jack would be willing to give the wife the $10,000 he would have to pay to the Rabbis.  Thankfully, Jill finally consulted with a competent rabbi who told her that by being stubborn she was getting nothing.  He explained that her husband would secure a Get with or without her cooperation and that by cooperating she was advancing her own financial situation.  Several days prior to the scheduled trial in this matter, Jill took the Get.  The case was settled on the eve of trial.

As Jack’s story evidences, while a husband’s refusal to grant a Get creates an Agunah situation for his wife, a wife’s refusal to take a Get can likewise create an untenable situation for a man.  While clearly less dramatic than the plight of the Agunah, who cannot obtain an Orthodox Get without her husband’s acquiescence, obtaining a Get where a wife refuses to cooperate in the process can leave the man in a difficult position as well.  Many men do not have the financial means necessary to obtain a heter maya rabbanim.  Many are unaware that this option even exists.  Another segment of the male population allows pride to stand in the way of obtaining a Get where the wife refuses to cooperate.  While much has been written about the need for community support for Agunot, an undeniably worthy cause, there is little outrage expressed over the plight of these men, who for various reasons, cannot convince their wives to accept a Get.  Sensitivity must be shown for this admittedly small, yet woefully unrecognized, minority, to ensure that all who wish a religious divorce, men and women alike, receive the community support they clearly deserve.


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