Mendel Epstein, subject of last week’s feature story, was allegedly able to operate his illicit kidnapping-and-divorce-coercion business for three decades because there was a demand for it. He’d stepped into a vacuum that had existed since ancient times: a desperate wife has few, if any, options if her husband refuses to grant them a get, the document required for a divorce to proceed under Jewish law.
She can get help from an advocacy group like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (Hebrew for “chained women”), who will try to persuade the husband with a variety of social and economic pressures. She can try to get the marriage annulled, a process that applies in very few cases. If neither of those efforts work, there is no other legal recourse.
Because the agonot problem is so challenging on the back-end, many rabbis have recently begun lobbying for a fix on the front end: prenuptial agreements.
“The best solution in the long run is prenups where get is pre-agreed if marriage breaks down,” says Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of Beth Din of America, a Manhattan-based rabbinical court that handles more cases than any beth din outside Israel.
Weissmann encourages all couples to sign a prenup before couples exchange vows. Indeed, some rabbis won’t marry a man and woman unless they agree to one.
It is somewhat of a new trend. Beth Din of America first began writing get-related prenups in the early ’90s. The most common contract, Weissmann says, states that, if a wife requests a get, the husband must pay $150 for each day he does not grant it.
In July 2012, a rabbinical court prenup faced a challenge in secular court for the first time. A Connecticut woman named Rachel Light sued her husband for not paying the $100-day-fee over the three years since he’d denied her get request.
In February, Connecticut Superior Court judge Mark Gould ruled that Eban Light owed his wife $110,000. It was a legal agreement between two consenting adults, a valid economic contract, the judge explained. (Eban Light has appealed the decision.)
Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, and Samuel Heilman, Jewish Studies professor at Queens College, agree that the prenup is the only sure way a woman can gain legal leverage in an Orthodox marriage, the only sure way to balance the power in the union.
Even then, it is a limited solution. Couples of all faiths, after all, sometimes resist prenups and the cold pessimism it radiates. Weissmann says he hopes to embed the contract into the culture, to naturalize it into the marriage process.
“The goal would be to have it universally adopted across the entire Orthodox community,” Weissmann told the New York Times in March 2012. “Repeatedly and consistently, even in extremely adversarial situations, the prenup has worked to prevent agunah situations and the improper use of the get in divorce negotiations.”