An “Agunah” – what can be done?

“Agunah” – the Jewish religious term for chained to/in her marriage, and cannot re-marry

Unfortunately, divorce refusal exists in Israel. The meaning is that the wife (usually) is “imprisoned” in a marriage that exists only on paper. There are times where the practical implications are difficult, as I will explain below. I will also explain what tools and options a woman in this situation has.

The historic source of “Agunot”

As mentioned above, an “Agunah” is a woman whose husband refuses to give her a divorce, forcing her to stay married to him. In order to better understand the terms “Divorce Refusal” and “Agunah” one should understand the legal source to these terms. In Israel, marriage and divorce are regulated by the Jewish law, i.e. these matters are not governed by civil rules but by the Jewish-religious law – the “Halacha”. The law of “rabbinic courts’ Jurisdiction (marriage and divorce) 5713-1953 states that marriage between Jews in Israel will be done according to the law of the “Torah”.

Enforcing the religious law of marriage and divorce can cause complications. For example: a couple who are not of the same faith (both Jews, or Muslims, or Christians) cannot marry due to their mixed faiths. The same goes for same-sex marriages, and other different cases.

What is divorce refusal?

According to the religious law, divorce is the act where a man sets his wife free (from the marriage) by giving her a “Gett”. If the husband refuses to give the wife a Gett, even though the court has ordered him to do so, the wife is left chained to the marriage, i.e. “Agunah”. She is still married to her husband, with all that is implied. She cannot have sexual relations with another man because then she will lose the right to alimony and the money written in her “Ketubah”. If she does have a relation and falls pregnant, her child will be recognized as a bastard (more on the subject of bastardy can be found at https://en.hhlaw.org.il/bastardy/). Obviously, she cannot marry another man. All this means that the “Agunah” cannot get on with her life.

What are the sanctions against a recalcitrant husband?

The Jewish-religious law stats that if the husband refuses to grant the divorce “he is forces until he says I agree”. In the past, this rule was interpreted in to torture. Nowadays, as the use of torture is illegal, the sanctions used are legal ones. A husband could lose his driving license, he can be heavily fined or restricted in using credit cards or checks. He can also be prisoned until he agrees to free his wife.

Please note that one should be very careful when enforcing a man to grant a divorce to his wife because according to the Jewish religion, a divorce granted half-heartedly is not always recognized as a “full” (real) divorce.

What can a wife who has been refused a divorce do?

The first thing I’d suggest to a wife who has been refused a divorce is to get legal advice from an experienced lawyer in the field of family law.

In addition, the wife can approach the Rabbinic court and request that they sanction the husband. The wife can also file a civil claim in the family court, at the same time she approaches the Rabbinic court. The claim should be for a substantial amount of money, which might “help” the husband change his mind.

To sum:

Divorce refusal is unfortunately here to stay, as long as the legal situation stays as it is, i.e. the sole authority of the Rabbinic court in matters of marriage and divorce. Wives who are refused a divorce do have legal ways to fight the recalcitrant husband. To find out and effectively realize these ways and tools it is best to seek legal advise.