New Approaches to the Agunah Problem


An inside look at what top scholars are examining right now at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Current Agunah Situation
Over the course of the 20th century, secular law changed to grant men and women an equal right to ask for divorce, to share the assets accumulated over the span of a marriage, and to receive custody of children in accordance with the children’s best interests. Jewish Law has not experienced a similar transformation. Because husbands must agree to divorce, or a get, they may use this power to coerce their wives into paying bribes or forgoing property and custody rights granted under civil law.

Get-based extortion occurs when men seek to use their power under Jewish Law as a bargaining chip in secular divorce negotiations. They demand that their wives surrender the rights granted to them by secular law in exchange for consent to the religious divorce. Such negotiations can leave women – and their children – impoverished after divorce.

Research and Solutions

New research in a range of disciplines seeks to understand the agunah issue as a social, legal, and halakhic problem, and to identify effective responses. Throughout the 2015 spring term, the HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion, and the Law will welcome three scholars from January to April to collaborate in this research. Applicants include historians, scholars of halakhah, sociologists, anthropologists, and experts on tort and constitutional law. Scholars will meet bi-weekly to study key texts and share work in progress. They will give lectures on campus open to the public and participate in a public conference, where they will present work produced over the course of the term. This work will contribute to public debate over finding solutions to the agunah problem and form the basis for articles in general media and a scholarly book on “Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Agunah Problem,” which will enable the academic and lay community to gain greater understanding of these issues.

For those who live in the Boston area, the following is a list of the scheduled talks you are invited to attend.

Seminar Schedule

Wednesdays, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Lieberman-Miller Lecture Hall
Hadassah-Brandeis Institute
Epstein Building, Brandeis University
515 South Street
Waltham, Massachusetts 02454

February 4
Haim Sperber, Western Galilee College
“Agunot in Eastern Europe and North America, 1900–1914: Sources and Narratives”

February 18
Susan Weiss, Center for Women’s Justice
“Is There a Cause of Action for Divorce Under Jewish Law? An Israeli Case Study”

February 25
Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion, and the Law
“Sharia, Halacha, and Laws Banning Foreign Law in Western Courts”

March 4
(Fast of Esther, no lunch provided)
Aryeh Klapper, Center for Modern Torah Leadership
“She Did Not Marry Herself Off with That in Mind: Recent and Potential Uses of a Talmudic Mechanism for Resolving Agunah Situations”

March 11
10:00 – 11:30 a.m.
Anat Livshits, New School for Social Research
“In the State’s Sponsorship: Planning of Support Services in Israel for Agunot and their Families”

March 18
Geraldine Gudefin, Brandeis University
“An Impossible Divorce? Russian Jewish Immigrants and Civil Divorce in France (1905–1930)”

March 25
Yael Machtinger, York University
“Sounds of Silence: A Socio-Legal Exploration of Siruv Get and Iggun in Toronto – Reflections on Seven Years of Research”

April 1
Benjamin Steiner, Mechon Hadar
“The Lieberman Clause Revisited”

April 15
Esther Macner, Get Jewish Divorce Justice
“Jewish Prenuptial Contracts: The Pitfalls and Promise”

April 22
Amihai Radzyner, Bar Ilan University
“Meagenet et atzma (The Wife Is Making Herself an Agunah): On The Possibility of Conditioning the Get and on Halakhic Problematic Innovation”

April 29
Final workshop presentation, 9:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.

The HBI Project on Gender, Culture, Religion, and the Law is generously funded by a gift from the Dan Fischel and Sylvia Neil Philanthropic Fund. The Seminar on New Approaches to the Agunah Problem is also supported by gifts from Estanne Fawer and the Phyllis and Michael (z”l) Hammer Fund.

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