Thursday, June 14, 2007

The heartbreaking cry of abandoned agunot

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The heartbreaking cry of abandoned agunot
Australian Jewish News
June 15, 2007

FOR two years of my life, when I was a doctoral student in England, I spent my days reading newspapers that were published in the ’60s – not from those

radical days of the last century when students took to the streets, but from a century before my time.

The newspapers I studied were not unlike our own
Australian Jewish News in form and content, except they were published in biblical Hebrew, which only an educated elite, mostly ex-yeshiva students, could read; contraband issues were passed around the great Lithuanian yeshivas like forbidden copies of Playboy.

The newspapers were published in the emerging Jewish cites of Eastern Europe – in Warsaw, Vilna and Odessa – and concerned themselves with everything from politics outside the ghetto to the new technologies of railways and steam ships, book reviews and social reform.

However, my favourite section was the classifieds, and as is the habit of Jews today on a Friday night, I would turn to the hatch, match and dispatch sections and then to the back page, which was filled with boxed advertisements for products ranging from lottery tickets, unemployed cantors, cheeses, kosher wines and salted herring.

The section, however, that most attracted my attention appeared exclusively in
Hamagid, a newspaper published in an obscure town called Lyck, which was located on the Prussian side of the Russian border where the censor’s pen could be evaded.

The advertisements, which over the course of the 1860s spilled from one page to the next, were on behalf of agunot, women who had been abandoned by their husbands. According to the editor, an indefatigable campaigner and hero in my eyes, there were literally thousands of women whose husbands had dumped them to seek their luck in other parts of the world, travelling by train to Germany or France, and by ship to America, and yes, to Australia.

ONE hundred and fifty years after the event, my heart still breaks for Beila Gishe, who has come to symbolise for me the continuing inequity (and iniquity) of a halachic system that abandoned these woman to the cruelty of their husbands. Listen to her voice, from 1869: “I cry out to you, noble sons of Israel, who are in Melbourne: it has been 15 years since my husband, Joseph X has left me to wander the breadth of the globe.

"Until four years ago, I had been receiving letters from him stating that he had had settled in the town of Melbourne, the capital of Australia, that he has grown in stature and acquired a large fortune ... And now my wretched daughter’s time has come to marry and I am bound with the bonds of desertion and poverty together. Who among you, rabbis of Melbourne, is God-fearing and intelligent, that he may listen to the groan of a mourner recounting how she has been deprived?”

Who among you? Who among us will not listen to the cry of this woman, joined to the cry of tens of thousands of other women whose lives were destroyed because the law could not find a way – a legal loophole – to alleviate their suffering?

The past is the past, and the name of the man who abandoned Beila Gishe no longer matters, and might bring shame to a family, even today, if I were to reveal it. But the real shame is that we allow this same system to continue to abuse Jewish women.

It is estimated that in Israel today there are thousands of women whose husbands refuse to give them a divorce, or who use the rabbinic courts to blackmail their wives into unjust financial and custody settlements.

The rabbis have been master magicians when it has come to bypassing obstacles involving limitations of commerce; for example, during the sabbatical years or on questions of interest loans.

And to their credit, the rabbis of the distant past have also listened to the cry of women like Beila Gisha, devoting whole passages of Talmudic hair-splitting to help them remarry. After the Shoah, when the surviving remnant of women trickled into the displaced persons’ camps, the rabbis found the heart to allow them to start new lives and marry, even though there was always the risk (and it happened) that a husband might miraculously reappear, leaving the new children bastards in the eyes of the law.

Yet today, Beila Gisha’s cry is left unanswered. "And the rabbi, in his great righteousness, shakes his head from side to side, blinks, whistles and speaks in a still, small voice: Deserted women? It is best for a man like me to remain silent.” The editor of
Hamagid still speaks to us today.

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