I cannot fathom the idea of working on a problem for 40 years. And yet, there is a whole group of Jewish women — and a handful of men — who have been doing just that. These are the agunah activists, some of whom have been fighting to find solutions for agunot — women trapped in unwanted marriages to recalcitrant husbands due to women’s lack of exit power from Jewish marriage – since the advent of the feminist movement in the 1970s. These activists, who demonstrate incredible perseverance and determination often with very little outcome, would be forgiven for giving up. But it’s possible that this week they may have reached a certain light at the end of the tunnel.
“I did not want to come today,” longtime agunah activist Rivka Haut told a packed crowd this week at an historic Agunah Summit organized by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and the Tikvah Center for Law and Jewish Civilization at NYU. The Agunah Summit, coordinated by JOFA founder Blu Greenberg, aimed to promote the use of systemic solutions within halakha in order to release agunot. Over 200 Jewish leaders filled the hall, eager to resolve this harrowing problem and the needless suffering of women, once and for all. “I wasn’t going to come, because I thought, more talking and not enough resolution,” Haut said. “But I’m leaving here optimistic. I think there is a chance now for real change.”
The change that Haut was referring to was the repeated calls for establishing a special rabbinical court to release agunot, one that would use halakhic tools such as “hafkaat kiddishin,” a form of annulment. Many speakers during the day supported the use of these halakhic tools, and several key rabbis — including Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Rabbi David Bigman and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin — advocated for establishing such a court immediately. Many rabbis in the audience said that they would be supportive of such a court, and some said they would be willing to study to become rabbinical court judges in order to be able to sit on the court.