Rackman’s agunah challenge

Published in The Jerusalem Post on July 19, 1998

Is Rabbi Prof. Emanuel Rackman, whose controversial new Orthodox ‘Bet Din of America’ has been unilaterally dissolving the marriages of *agunot*, courageous or impetuous? Perhaps both.


The ferocious controversy kindled by Bar-Ilan University Chancellor Emeritus Rabbi Rackman over the freeing of *agunot* — women halachically chained to recalcitrant husbands against their will – pits one of the most prominent, profound, and courageously-outspoken Orthodox leaders of this generation against Orthodox rabbinical establishments around the world. The battle has implications for the integrity of the halachic system itself.


The American Bet Din led by Rabbi Rackman has gone further than any comparable Orthodox court, dissolving in recent months over 70 cruel marriages without the husband’s agreement, or even testimony. Now listen to the vociferous criticism from the progressive Orthodox intellectual elite:


Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein: “An irresponsible initiative, even a calamity. Rabbi Rackman is on very shaky halachic grounds”. Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinowitz: “Impetuous and rash; not well-prepared and argued; you can’t be a one-man bull in the halachic china shop”. Rabbi Dr. Aharon Rakefet: “Intellectually dishonest; giving a false sense to people that this is halachically acceptable”. Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber: “Highly dubious and hardly justifiable”. Rabbi Prof. Justice Menachem Elon: “You can’t single-handedly resolve a problem of such enormous halachic import without the backing of significant halachic arbiters”.


In response, Rabbi Rackman takes a historical view. He points to innovations in *agunah* problem-solving introduced last century and this by Rabbi Y.E. Spektor and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein – innovations which were contested by significant contemporaries, but today are accepted beyond reproach.


Rabbi Rackman admits that one of his goals is to prod the rabbinical establishment out of its slumber on this painful issue, forcing other eminent rabbis to step in with solutions of their own. “I am militant and impatient with regard to freeing *agunot*”, writes Rackman in an upcoming article, “because usually there are solutions when there’s a halachic will. Rabbis found a way to permit the taking and giving of interest; a way to save our chometz until after Passover; and a way to use a stroller on the Sabbath. Women in chains deserve no less”.


Rackman insists that the Bet Din’s technical solutions remain within the halachic envelope, and that there are previous precedents. “We did not invent the wheel”, he avers. The halachic logic is complicated: If endemic cruelty characterized the marriage; and if coercion by a Bet Din of the husband to divorce his wife is warranted; then the woman can assert she was deceived in entering the marriage, and the Talmudic presumption that “a woman prefers any kind of marriage to none” is not applicable; the Rabbinical Court then can exercise its Talmudically-sanctioned power to retroactively dissolve the matrimonial union.


The problem is that the four Talmudic precedents for use of annulment are very limited in scope, applied only when some sort of *get* process exists. Rackman expands the range enormously. Nevertheless, Rabbi Rackman says “I certainly feel that I can meet my Maker on this”.


Rabbi Rackman quotes Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Halevy Eidels, the leading 16th century Talmudic giant known as the *Maharsha*, who wrote that “one must do everything possible to free an *agunah* even to the point of uprooting an element of the Torah” (Yevamot 121a). Rackman: “The neglect of *agunot* by the rabbinic establishment is alienating people from Judaism. I am fighting for the glory of Torah and the halachic system, and our solutions will do more for the future of halacha than the stringency of its mandates”.


Critics concede that Rackman is sincere in his efforts, and is creating “useful noise” (– Elon) in forcing the *agunah* issue to the top of the halachic agenda. “I fully appreciate and respect the motives that impel Rackman. Women have suffered long and grievously, and the capacity of rabbis to deal with this problem hasn’t been utilized to the fullest”, admits Rabbi Lichtenstein.


Sperber: “Rackman is courageously spurring others to find more satisfactory solutions. Elon: “Rackman isn’t a populist. He’s doing this out of a deep-rooted concern for halachic propriety, for *tikkun olam*”. Rabinowitz: “Unfortunately, he’s right that not all rabbinates are dealing sufficiently with the *agunah* problem”. Rakefet: “Maybe *min hashamayim zikuhu* – Heaven will direct Rackman’s misstep towards a better result”.


Rackman’s greatest error is the failure to substantiate his Bet Din’s actions in a learned *teshuva*, a formal halachic position paper, which could then be considered and debated by today’s Jewish law *gedolim*. To Rabbi Rackman I say: pull back for a while and defend yourself! Do not revel in your solitude. You must attract heavyweight halachic arbiters to your side in order to have long-term impact.


In the final analysis, Rabbi Rackman simply may be 100 years ahead of his time. His 70-year-long career in the Rabbinate has been marked by fearlessness, bravely standing out, usually ahead of the Orthodox mainstream. As Danish playwright Henry Gibson once quipped about Jacob the Patriarch, who “was left alone” (Genesis 32:25) — ‘he who stands alone is the strongest man in the world’. We need more leaders like him.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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