While searching for material on the Web about the agunah problem to answer a question someone asked about whether excommunication is still used within Judaism, I came upon news I hadn’t previously heard, concerning the expulsion earlier this year of Rabbi Mordecai Tendler from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA).
I was alarmed enough by what I read to dig a little deeper, and without much difficulty I came upon a seemingly comprehensive archive of documentation concerning the case.
In brief, allegations against sexual misconduct against Rabbi Tendler sparked an in-depth investigation by the RCA, at the end of which Rabbi Tendler was expelled from the RCA.
I can’t believe I missed this. This seems like a Really Big Deal, and I must really have my head in the sand not to have heard anything about it before now. I’m curious if any of the folks reading my blog can shed any light on it.
In particular, it seems like all the parties who’ve weighed in with an opinion about the case have polarized strongly to one side or the other, and the debate seems to have been marred by “dirty pool.” I’d like to know if any truly unbiased parties, known to me or known to people known to me, have spoken out on one side or the other. Basically, I’m just not sure what I should believe, but I feel like I should believe something about this case.
I fear that perhaps the debate is so contentious that trusted third parties may have chosen to stay out of it for fear of being tarred by one side or the other (or perhaps both) immediately upon entering the fray.
The agunah problem
In Jewish law, an “agunah” is a woman who is separated from her husband but cannot remarry because he has not granted her a divorce. In Jewish law, a divorce, called a “get” after the document which effects it, must be initiated by the husband. “Agunah” literally means “chained,” i.e., the woman is chained to the marriage.
In ancient times, this generally occurred when the husband went missing, e.g., got sent off to war and went MIA, or was traveling by ship and the ship sank. Without a witness to testify that the husband is certainly dead, the woman must assume that he is still living and she is therefore still married.
In modern times, that happens rarely. What happens much more rarely is men separating from their wives and then refusing to give them a get. This utterly reprehensible practice has caused two distinct, growing problems within Jewish Orthodoxy — the suffering of an entire class of women whose dirtbag ex-husbands are preventing them from getting on with their lives; and an increase in the number of “mamzerim” (usually translated as “bastards”) borne by less religious agunot who remarry and have children despite not receiving a get from their previous husbands.
Women who remarry without a get are, legally, adulteresses, and any offspring of an adulterous relationship is a mamzer. Mamzerim have all sorts of legal restrictions, including that they are only permitted to marry other mamzerim.