Jewish Week The court, called the International Beit Din, was formed in June and is headed by Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a highly respected former pulpit rabbi in Queens and Religious Zionist of America leader who made aliyah in 2005. It is interpreting Jewish law in new ways — still consistent with tradition, its leaders say — to procure a get, or religious divorce, for agunot, women stuck in marriages with recalcitrant husbands.[...]
While the number of agunot is not known, the problem has gone largely unsolved, pitting traditional Jewish law against those who feel deep empathy for women stuck in loveless marriages. At the root of the issue is the husband’s absolute right when it comes to issuing a get, or Jewish divorce. And while rabbinic authorities offer sympathy for these women, they maintain they are constrained from action in many cases by the boundaries of halacha. The result, at times, has the husband using extortion before granting a divorce, insisting on large sums of money and/or refusing joint custody of children. According to Jewish law, if the agunah marries and has a child, the child is considered a mamzer, illegitimate, and cannot marry a Jew. (This is not true in the husband’s case.)
Concerns about the moral injustice of the “absolute right” principle have led to a myriad of efforts to resolve the agunah problem, or “crisis,” in recent years. In the 1990s, the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a major figure in Modern Orthodoxy and president of Bar-Ilan University, convened a beit din that issued divorces on the basis of kiddushei ta’ot, a Talmudic concept for annulment. The principle reasons that the woman never would have married her husband if she had known he would act in an abusive fashion during the marriage.
While deeply respected on a personal level by his peers, Rabbi Rackman, who died in 2008,was unsuccessful in persuading them to accept his approach, which was considered too lenient. The practical result was that many rabbis refused to officiate at the subsequent weddings of women who had been freed by the rabbi’s bet din.
Rabbi Krauss is introducing the legal concept of get zikui, annulling a marriage based on what is best for both parties. The principle operates on the premise that the divorce will ultimately benefit the husband as well as the wife.
“There is no more relationship — they have gone their separate ways,” explained Rabbi Krauss in an email. “The husband doesn’t want to give the get unless he gets money. It’s not true that he doesn’t want to give a divorce, but he wants money. Deep down, he wants to be free and pursue his life.”
The International Beit Din will not use get zikui to the exclusion of other methods, explained Rabbi Yosef Blau, another of the three judges on the panel and the spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University.
“A number of tools can be used,” he said. “Each case will be evaluated on its own merit. The goal is to free women in a way that the decision will be accepted in the broader community.”[...]
Still, despite support from abroad, the new religious court has already met with resistance here. According to a source close to the court, several leading rabbis at Yeshiva University, including Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, have already expressed reservations about the court’s methodology. The source wished to remain anonymous in order to avoid “mahchlocet,” public disagreement. [...]
Aside from methodology, the International Beit Din will also implement a new policy of transparency. According to traditional Jewish law, members of the court do not have to give any explanation for their rulings. But Rabbi Ronnie Warburg, director of the International Beit Din and the court’s third judge, explained that “transparency is an imperative.” [...]