Shabbat Parashat Tzav| 5764
Ask the Rabbi
Question: We have a man in shul who has been instrumental in the shul’s operations and finances for years. Many years ago he got divorced from his wife. For whatever reasons (I never asked) he never gave his wife a get. The man is never given an aliyah and is shunned by our rabbi. I understand that it is the correct thing to give a get. However, does our rabbi have the halachic right to treat him so harshly after all these years?
Answer: We cannot discuss the specific case, to which you refer, as we do not know its particulars. But we must speak strongly about the phenomenon you describe.
One of the people we are most required to help, by searching for legitimate leniency and otherwise, is an agunah. An agunah is a woman who is chained to a husband with whom she is unable to live, either because he is missing or they are incompatible. While the main, practical problem she has is that she is unable to remarry, the feeling of limbo and helplessness she suffers from is one of the most tragic situations that exist. Only one who has been personally involved in such a situation can appreciate its severity.
At times, a woman can be an agunah without it being anyone’s fault (i.e. the husband is in an irreversible coma). That is tragic enough. But there are women who are in this horrible situation, because their husbands are spiteful or have monetary or other demands. This is unacceptable! This is as morally wrong as the case of a man who stalks his ex-wife because of some vendetta! If a husband has grievances against his wife, he may raise them in court, preferably a beit din. They may side with him; they may side against him. But for him to take the law into his own hands and withhold a get should not be an option our community tolerates.
In Israel and, at points in history, in the Diaspora, religious courts had the practical authority to physically coerce a stubborn husband to give a get, when a get was mandated in the most clear cut manner. In cases that were a little less clear cut, they could make a harchaka d’Rabbeinu Tam, which is a painful form of publicly shunning the husband, not only in shul, but in commercial and personal settings, as well (see Even Haezer 154). Withholding aliyot is “peanuts.” Nowadays, outside Israel, the main recourse is usually moral and moderate public pressure. Tragically, weak public response causes that there is often only mild or even no pressure.
Again, we cannot comment on the specific case you raise. However, if the rabbinical courts have instructed your acquaintance to give a get and your rabbi has been asked to ensure some form of communal disapproval, then that is the very least that should be done. Others should follow the rabbi’s lead, not question it, and should not allow their good intentions to be misdirected.
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