Aguna - Recalcitrant Spouse
My friend is stuck in a situation where she cannot get a Jewish divorce because her husband is being a jerk and refuses to do so. Is this fair? Can’t the rabbis find a solution?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
A Jewish marriage can be terminated only through the death of one spouse, or with divorce. In a case where the spouse is not known to be dead, nor available to give a Get, that would leave the surviving spouse in limbo, unable to become remarried.
This situation is called agunah – the "chained" spouse. This concept appears in the Talmud primarily in connection with a husband who disappeared or was missing in action. (This issue unfortunately became common in the aftermath of the Holocaust.) Even today, a spouse will sometimes withhold a Get out of spite, or in an attempt to extort money or concessions in the areas of child support, custody, or marital property.
The agunah problem commonly refers to a man who is recalcitrant. However, since Jewish divorce requires mutual consent, if a woman refuses to cooperate in receiving a Get, a man could be in this state of limbo as well.
What can be done to prevent this appalling situation?
In the State of Israel, if a man was ordered by a Beit Din to give his wife a Get and he refuses, he could be imprisoned until he complies. Other sanctions include the revocation of his driver’s license or passport, depriving him of visitation rights, imposing a monetary fine, and/or denying him participation in synagogue activities. This type of pressure has proved effective.
Other methods of persuasion are perhaps more apocryphal. I have heard of high school students standing outside a man's office carrying placards with his picture and information about what he was doing to his wife. One episode of the TV show The Sopranos featured Tony being hired to convince a stubborn Jewish man to give his wife a Get – or else face dismemberment.
In the State of New York there is a law linking the validity of civil divorce to the proper completion of a religious Get – i.e. a husband is unable to obtain a civil divorce until he removes all impediments to his wife’s ability to remarry. (This has also helped other faith-based communities who may have similar problems.)
The topic of agunah is very detailed with many accompanying controversies. For more information, see this article by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz.
Assistance in resolving a specific case of agunah is available at getora.com.