Debate Magazine

Agunot and Converts

Posted on the 27 December 2011 by Starofdavida
Agunot and ConvertsI’ve been following Heshy Friedat his blog, Frum Satire, for a couple of years at this point.It was actually the first blog I followed on a regular basis. I like Heshybecause he really sees things as they are and calls it like it is. He posted this article a little while ago,equating men who deny their wives a get (divorce papers) and therebymake them into agunot (chained wives) to rabbis who won’t give convertstheir official conversion papers.
At first, I was highly offended bythis, and all prepared to leave a scathing comment on the post. As I beganwriting my response, though, I couldn’t think of any argument to counterHeshy’s. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that agunahisn’t much different than unofficial converts.
In Judaism, how divorce works isthat the husband has to give his wife a get. While this seems sexist andhorrendous today, the law’s original intent was to protect women from quickiedivorces that were popular in the ancient Middle East.(When I say quickie, I mean quickie. In one culture, all a man had to do wasbring his wife outside, say “I divorce you” or something to that effect threetimes, and they would be divorced.) A get gives women a certain amountof money (specified in the marriage papers), as well as other rights. Today’smen have twisted this pro-woman measure, extorting their wives for thousands ofdollars and rights like children’s custody, in order to give a get.Without a get, women are unable to remarry and go on with their lives.As a result, agunah has become a big issue among today’s Jews.
With Orthodox conversion, aperson has to take classes about Judaism for several years. Would-be convertsoften have to travel or move to Israelin this process. Once done, they have to find a rabbi willing to convert them.(For men, this means circumcision and a dip in the mikvah (ritual bath).Women obviously only need to do the mikvah part.) Finding the rabbi isoften extremely difficult; converts like Yisrael Campbell (star of CircumciseMe and husband of prominent Jewish feminist Avital Campbell Hochstein), whohave moved to Israelin order to convert Orthodox, have struggled at this step. While Mr. Campbellfound his rabbi and got his official conversion papers afterwards, many peopleare denied the papers. Without them, even if a person has gone in the mikvahand is a Jew according to halakha (Jewish law), he or she can’t functionas a full Jew, not being able to marry Jewish or have a Jewish child.
So at the end of the day, are agunotand unofficial converts that different? Neither can function as a full Jewwithin society, as neither can get married nor perpetuate the Jewish nationfurther. Unfortunately, both are issues that get too little lip service, letalone action, from people in authority positions who could actually changethem. This lack of accomplishment needs to be altered. Fortunately, there aresome amazing organizations and individuals that are working for that goal.
Agunah Advocates:Agunah InternationalJOFAORACenter for Women’s Justice
Conversion Advocates:Aliza Hausman Conversion to Judaism Resource Center National Jewish Outreach Program

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