The New York Times recently reported the case of Aharon Friedman, a 34-year-old Orthodox Jew, who refuses to give a Jewish divorce to his wife, Tamar Epstein, 27. The civil courts have already granted the couple a divorce. However, for Orthodox Jews, they must follow Jewish laws: they must get a Jewish divorce. A Jewish decree of divorce, known as a get, is only valid when given by a beit din, a Jewish court.
According to Jewish tradition, only a husband can give a get. This tradition is based on the laws found in the book of Deuteronomy:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter husband dislikes her and writes her a bill of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring guilt upon the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance (Deuteronomy 24:1 RSV).
I have written a detailed study of divorce in the Old Testament and the New Testament. If you have not read my study on divorce, I strongly recommend that you do so now in order to understand the problem involved in this case (click here).
According to the legislation of Deuteronomy, a man has the right to put his wife away, but whenever he sends her away, he must provide her with a certificate of divorce. The certificate of divorce allows a divorced woman to remarry if she so desires.
This same issue of divorce and sending away appears in the New Testament. In Matthew 19:3 a Pharisee asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus’ answer did not please the Pharisee. So he asked another question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7).
The issue raised by the text in Deuteronomy and in Matthew is based on the fact that when a man sends his wife away (and this is not figurative language), he is not divorcing her, he is merely sending her away without any legal protection. When a man sends a woman away, the woman is still married to her husband. This is the reason she cannot belong to another man: she is still married (read my argument in the post mentioned above).
What Mr. Friedman has done, according to Jewish law, is precisely what Deuteronomy 24 prohibits: sending a woman away without the benefit of a decree of divorce. This is the reason the Lord said: “For I hate sending away, says the LORD the God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16).
The reason sending away without the decree of divorce is evil before the Lord is because a woman who is sent away without a decree of divorce is called an agunah, a “chained woman.” According to the news report in The New York Times, there are several hundreds of agunot (the plural of agunah) in the United States today. These women, although divorced by a civil court, are still married according to Jewish law. These women are agunot, “chained women.”
Many people gathered in front of Mr. Friedman’s apartment to protest his refusal to grant a get, a decree of divorce to his wife. I believe he should give a get to his wife, even though the problem of custody of their child has not been resolved to Mr. Friedman’s satisfaction.
All of us, Jews and non-Jews, should care for the situation faced by these “chained women.” The agunot cannot remarry within their faith and this is a tragedy in itself.
However, there is another important reason for caring for the plight of the agunot. As Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington said: “I don’t think the Messiah can come, as long as there is one agunah in the world.”
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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