Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Model Rabbinic Leadership

By Rachel Levmoe


Jewish communities the world over can, and should, stamp out the agunah problem.
A striking demonstration of true rabbinic leadership was unveiled this week, in what may be the most unlikely of countries. One would expect creative rabbinic rulings for the good of an entire community to emanate from the great centers of Jewish study such as can be found in Jerusalem or Lakewood. However, reality disabuses us of that notion.

The larger the Orthodox community, the more conservative its rabbis.

Not so Rabbi Ben-Tzion Spitz, chief rabbi of Uruguay.

As a graduate of Yeshiva University with a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Columbia University, he obviously knows to discern cause and effect. Less than a year in office, Rabbi Spitz has been confronted with a growing number of agunot - women whose husbands refuse to arrange for a Jewish divorce by granting them a get.

Deeply disturbed by the plight of the women chained in Jewish marriage to a man wielding the ultimate weapon in his power - get-refusal - he was receptive to an initiative launched by Sara Winkowski - a director of the "Kehila" (Jewish Community of Uruguay) - for the resolution of the agunah problem.

Chief Rabbi Spitz not only authorized the use of a prenuptial agreement designed to prevent get-refusal, he mandated its use. A result of a process involving the community through a legal committee, the prenuptial agreement is supported by the board of directors of the Kehila. The document follows both Jewish and Uruguayan law.

There are an estimated 10,000 Jews living in Uruguay.

Many, who are not necessarily observant, prefer to have an Orthodox wedding.

However, the agunah problem crops up in marriages performed specifically in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law. Without a get given to the wife under the auspices of an Orthodox rabbinical court, a civilly divorced woman is not free to remarry under Jewish law.

Interestingly, although the community is a Zionist one, enjoying close relations with the Israeli rabbinate, the local rabbinate did not choose to turn for assistance to Israel. Viewing this as a community problem with the need for a community-based solution, Chief Rabbi Spitz provided one.

Recognizing his responsibility for the welfare of his female constituents, Rabbi Spitz said: "By instituting the wholesale signing of the prenuptial agreement, and without discriminating between couples who may or may not choose such insurance, we have presented a solution to this long-standing problem for all families that will marry under the auspices of the Kehila."

In order to provide protection to all women getting married under the Orthodox wedding canopy, the Kehila will not conduct marriages of couples that will not sign the Rabbinic Prenuptial Agreement. The Kehila is actually the keeper of a registry of Jewish weddings in the community dating back to the year 1950, which is the basis for issuing certificates of Judaism.

This is one of the few ways for Jews from Uruguay to be recognized as Jews by the State of Israel.

Pressing the point even further, to ensure that every couple marrying in an Orthodox manner does indeed sign the prenuptial agreement, the Kehila will no longer enter into the registry or issue certificates of Judaism to families that do not participate in the signing of the prenuptial agreement. This model of rabbinic leadership deserves to be positively lauded.

In contemporary society, leading rabbis tend to stay away from preventative solutions.

It takes the small Jewish community of Uruguay, together with its local communal institution - the Kehila - and its chief rabbi, Ben-Tzion Spitz, to teach us all a lesson. Jewish communities the world over can, and should, stamp out the agunah problem.