Orthodox rabbis’ group mandates prenup to prevent ‘chained’ wives

Ben Sales

NEW YORK (JTA) — The Rabbinical Council of America will mandate its member rabbis to require couples to sign a prenuptial agreement ensuring that husbands will not withhold a get, or Jewish writ of divorce, from their wives.

The agreement, commonly referred to as a “halakhic prenup,” generally penalizes the husband financially for refusing to give the get.

Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA, a centrist Orthodox rabbis’ organization, said the organization is mandating the longstanding fix to an intractable problem now because the Orthodox community is largely aware of and comfortable with its use. According to a press release sent Wednesday by the RCA, requiring a prenup will further reduce any stigma associated with it in corners of the Orthodox community.

“We’re an organization with a thousand rabbis that also need to be trained and educated and feel comfortable with this,” he said. “We’re at a place now where the membership thought this was possible.”

According to halakha, or traditional Jewish law, a husband must give his wife the get in order for the couple to divorce. Women whose husbands refuse to divorce them — preventing them from remarrying under Jewish law — are referred to as “agunot,” Hebrew for “chained women.”

The RCA has advocated the use of the prenup since 1993, and has encouraged its use in subsequent statements throughout the years. But the document’s use is not universal, and husbands still occasionally refuse to divorce their wives. This is the first time the RCA is requiring its rabbis to have couples sign the prenup before their weddings.

Among some 200 mostly American Orthodox rabbis surveyed earlier this year by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association, roughly 75 percent already require couples to sign the prenup before getting married. Nearly 50 of the rabbis, however, either don’t require the prenup or actively discourage couples they are marrying from signing one.

Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of JOFA, applauded the RCA’s statement, but questioned how effective it will be.

“I hope that it becomes the reality,” she said. “I don’t know if this is a real policy that’s enforceable. I hope that they don’t need to enforce it. I hope that if they need to they do.”

Dratch told JTA that the RCA has a procedure in place for investigating and penalizing rabbis who break any of its rules, and that the group would use that procedure in this case as well. He said, however, that this resolution may be harder to enforce because member rabbis perform so many weddings.

“It’s difficult in this case because we’re not at every wedding,” he said. “But if it should come to the attention of the [RCA] executive committee, there’s a mechanism by which we can investigate and come to the decision.”

Despite her reservations, Weiss-Greenberg said the resolution may provide a real benefit to many women who could otherwise become “chained” by their husbands.

“This is the best solution for creating lasting change in a proactive manner,” she said. “The job will not be done, but the job will be infinitely smaller if everyone had the halakhic prenup.”