In the overwhelming majority of cases, the get process proceeds without hitches, offering men and women the ability to be freed of unwanted matrimonial bonds. No rabbi will remarry the husband or wife unless the previous marriage has been terminated with a get, so arranging for a get is within the best interests of both parties.

Sadly, however, there are some people who refuse to grant their spouses the opportunity of a get. This distressing phenomenon that has effectively ruined the lives of innocent people is known as the "Agunah Problem."

Historical Overview of the Agunah Issue

The "agunah problem" was always one of the greatest challenges facing halachic authoritiesAgunah means "anchored," or "chained." An agunah is a married woman who is not living with her husband, but has not been released from the bonds of matrimony. Though she wishes to put her marriage behind her, she is not free to remarry. She is chained to an unwanted marriage.

According to halachah, a woman may not remarry unless there is clear evidence that her husband had died or halachically divorced her with a get document. In times past, most agunot (pl. form of agunah) were victims of vanishing husbands. Traveling businessmen were often killed by bandits, who would dispose of the body leaving behind no trace of evidence. Or, a traveler would die in a remote location, and due to the lack of communication technology, or proper identification on the husband's person, the wife would remain uninformed. Frequent pogroms and wars habitually left agunot in their wake. Before recent times it was also fairly easy for an individual who had fallen upon hard times – or was unhappy with his current job, lifestyle, marriage, reputation, etc. – to simply vanish in the night and resurface in another city or country and start anew, unencumbered by previous obligations—including marital ones.1

The "agunah problem" was always one of the greatest challenges facing halachic authorities. The sages of the Talmud,2 recognizing the tremendous personal tragedy of the agunah, instituted various halachic leniencies intended to decrease the incidence of women in this woeful state.3 In biblical times, soldiers who were dispatched to the battlefield were required to first deliver a divorce to their wives,4 allowing the wives to remarry in the event that the husbands did not return.5 Halachic literature of the last millennium is dominated by "agunah responsa," penned by halachic authorities in response to inquiries from agunot who presented (sometimes flimsy) evidence of their husband's demise, and now wished rabbinical authorization to remarry. These responsa reveal how these rabbis went to great lengths to find halachic precedent to declare these women widows.6

The Modern-Day Agunah

Today the world is "smaller," and it is it is very uncommon for people to simply vanish. Nevertheless, the agunah problem persists, primarily due to husbands who cruelly refuse to grant their wives a divorce—despite rabbinical courts' orders to do so. A variety of reasons motivate these recalcitrant men. Many of them are unhappy with the financial aspect of their divorce settlement, others with custody arrangements, and they use the get as leverage in negotiations. Others hold their wives ransom, refusing to give a get until the wife pays an outrageous sum of money. While others refuse to give a get simply out of malice and spite.

The court is empowered to use all methods at their disposal to compel the husband to "agree" to divorceIronically, this type of agunah, the one whose husband is very much present but refuses to give a get, is a relatively new phenomenon. According to halachah, though it is the husband who gives his wife the get, a woman too may demand a divorce if she can prove that the husband is neglectful, repulsive or abusive. In such an instance, the halachah is unequivocal:

"One who is halachically required to divorce his wife and refuses to do so, a Jewish beth din – at any place and at any time7 – corporally punishes him until he says, 'I wish [to divorce].' The get is then written and it is a kosher get."8

In short: the beth din is empowered to use any and all methods at their disposal to compel the husband to "agree" to divorce his wife. This includes imposing sanctions on having casual or business dealings with the noncompliant husband, and even using brute force if necessary.9

These measures were enough to induce the vast majority of people to comply with the rabbinical courts' decisions in these matters. This remained the case until relatively recently; because for the most part Jewish communities in the Diaspora were authorized to police, adjudicate internal disputes and dispense justice within their own communities.

Today, however, religious courts are not empowered to take justice into their own hands. Add to that the fact that today most Jewish communities are not united under the auspices of one specific communal body or rabbinical court, thus severely limiting the efficacy of any social or religious sanctions imposed by a given beth din.

Thus the agunah problem has evolved. The problem of vanishing husbands has practically vanished. In its stead we are faced with a new scourge: the recalcitrant husband.

Solutions

Recent years has seen an increased awareness regarding the agunah problem, and attempts to aid those women who find themselves in this unenviable situation.

Seemingly the most obvious solution – one that has been promoted, with some measure of success, by various individuals and organizations – would be to lobby the secular legislatures to enact laws that require recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives a get—along with punitive measures for those who disregard these laws.

Recent years has seen an increased awareness regarding the agunah problemNevertheless, this solution has not been universally accepted by halachic authorities. One of the major issues involved is that according to halachah a get that is granted under duress, not entirely out of the husband's free volition, is null and void. Though we mentioned earlier that a beth din is free to use whatever measures necessary to persuade a husband to give a divorce, this only applies when these measures are taken by the beth din or by individuals (Jewish or non-Jewish) retained by beth din to perform this task.10

So many have shifted the focus of their efforts back to the rabbis, with different groups and organizations encouraging rabbis and rabbinical courts to actively do whatever is within their capability to induce husbands to divorce their wives—public shaming, community shunning, etc.

There are also several support groups that offer agunot the opportunity to dialogue, share ideas and offer each other moral support.

Chained Husbands

A little more than 1,000 years ago, the beth din of a German rabbi, Rabbi Gershom "the Light of the Diaspora," instituted major reforms in Jewish marriage law. He forbade polygamy, and decreed that a woman cannot be divorced without her consent. These reforms have been accepted as law in all Ashkenazi communities, and in certain Sephardic ones as well.11

As a result, a man whose wife refuses to receive a get12 is also "anchored" to his marriage.13