American Orthodoxy

Decentralizing Religious Authority

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Rachel Levmore

Editor’s Note: This article is the second response to the recent controversy over halakhic prenuptial agreements that has been brewing in Israel. See the first response, by Rabbi Jeremy Stern, here.

Orthodox Jewish life used to be a simpler matter for those who wanted to lead one. There was an unspoken system in place. One could approach the local rabbi with a question. If he didn’t know, scholars higher up in the “hierarchy” could weigh in until the question reached the “gadol hador.” Despite the plurality of approaches which always existed, there was a definitive address whose opinion would be accepted by all (or almost all).

Alas, the last of the great Torah giants, those respected by Orthodox Jewry the world-over even in cases of disagreement, have passed on. Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Menachem Schneerson, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, and Ovadiah Yosef are all gone. The present circumstances, which have witnessed a breakdown of authority in general society coupled with the absence of an uncontested authoritative Torah scholar, has led to absurd situations.

Lacking agreed-upon “gedolim” today, a void exists. As nature abhors a vacuum, others will try to fill that void. Some rabbis may quote the late authority figures (correctly or incorrectly), while others claim to speak the unequivocal truth on any given current issue as loudly as possible, so as to ascertain that their voice is heard around the world.

Without any proper halakhic discourse between various rabbis who deem themselves to be leaders (even if they lack followers), there are those who lash out at other Torah scholars in communities with which they have no connection. This rabbi-bashing has reached a point so extreme that in the recent past rabbinic authors of firebrand-style declarations have “judged” authentic, respected Orthodox rabbis to be non-Orthodox!

These “wars of the Jews” often take place domestically, among rabbis and communities within the United States or within Israel. At times, these debates even reach across the ocean, yielding scenarios that are extremely problematic. It is clear that Israeli rabbis who make pronouncements regarding Orthodox rabbis and Orthodox practice in America cannot possibly be construed as the mara de-atra anywhere in the United States. They are clearly overstepping their bounds. Those Israeli rabbis have no experience with nor understanding of Jewish life or society in the United States, nor have they entered into discussion with their rabbinic counterparts from whom they could learn. Instead, they attempt to delegitimize the respected American Orthodox rabbinate, whether as individuals or as a group, claiming that they know better.

Case-in-Point: Prenuptial Agreements for the Prevention of Get-Refusal
Recently, opposition to prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal was spotlighted by one Israeli website posting a declaration signed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel stating that rabbis who “incite” the signing of such agreements are not Orthodox and their rulings in Jewish law are not to be relied upon. This pronouncement was published together with an older announcement in which other Israeli, extreme ultra-Orthodox rabbis attacked the prenuptial agreement of the Beth Din of America.

These ultra-Orthodox rabbis (make no mistake—the few rabbis listed who may wear “crocheted kipot” are also ultra-Orthodox in their halakhic outlook), are using the power of the Internet, attempting to create the impression that they are leaders who can dictate to this generation of Orthodox Jews. Many of them simply reject the notion that members of today’s younger generation are more autonomous in their thoughts, halakhic decisions, and actions than any preceding generation. Using the internet, these ultra-Orthodox rabbis fiercely condemn the Beth Din of America’s halakhic prenup. However, it is not clear how effective their opposition has been: thousands of Orthodox Jews in the United States and Israel have for decades signed and continue to sign halakhic prenuptial agreements with the aim of preventing get-refusal. This attack is repeated from time to time, perhaps indicating that the ultra-Orthodox rabbis feel that they are losing control over the lives of autonomous Orthodox Jews, perhaps even within their own communities.

The Internet is not the forum for halakhic rows. Rabbinic tradition prescribes that halakhic disputes be conducted in depth, not superficially through “virtual” statements in cyberspace. Proper procedure dictates that rabbinic forums be held where differences of opinions can be discussed face to face. If that is not possible, then scholarly books are written or rabbinic articles published. Alarmist attempts to create fear among innocent lay-people cannot be considered credible halakhic writing.

Nevertheless, I will relate to the Orthodox layperson who may feel affected by these “wars of the Jews” instigated by the ultra-Orthodox signatories. It is interesting to note the different reactions (or lack thereof) of the Orthodox public in Israel and the United States.

As far as I could verify, not one inquiry regarding the letter was made to any of the organizations or leaders promoting the signing of prenuptial agreements in Israel. In fact, the Israeli Orthodox public is accustomed to such attacks on a variety of subjects. A layperson may read an article reporting another frantic pashkevil, but she or he understands that these rabbis are not her or his own. In general, the Israeli reaction to this hostility ranges from complete indifference to dismissal to an increase in the numbers of couples who sign prenuptial agreements. The very publication of the ultra-Orthodox extremist stance actually helps to clarify for the average Israeli couple that without a prenuptial agreement a woman has a very good chance of becoming a victim of get-refusal in the case of divorce. Hearing the stringent halakhic approach of some ultra-Orthodox rabbis helps young couples arrive at the understanding that they must protect themselves. Thus, thousands of couples have signed either the Israeli Agreement of Mutual Respect, which includes a clause (clause “R”) referring to the Beth Din of America’s Binding Arbitration prenuptial agreement in the case that the couple would live abroad, or the Tzohar agreement.

On the other hand, I was told that soon-to-be-married couples in the United States were asking for clarification. My response to them is simple—it is not for naught that the Mishnah directs us to choose who is our rabbi: aseh lekha rav. It is your responsibility as a God-fearing Jew to determine which rabbi you will follow, according to your perception of his righteousness, scholarship, and derekh—philosophy of Jewish life.

For a variety of reasons, it should be a rabbi who lives in the same community as you, not least since he would then be familiar with the challenges and facts of your life. In the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America has assembled an impressive body of rabbinic figures—over a thousand member rabbis—and has repeatedly determined that all engaged couples should sign prenuptial agreements, together with the Rabbinical Council of America’s resolution that “declares that each of its members must utilize, in any wedding at which he is the officiant (mesader kiddushin), in addition to a ketubah, a rabbinically-sanctioned prenuptial agreement.”

Add to this the public letters issued twice by the roshei yeshiva of Yeshiva University calling upon fellow rabbis and students to use prenuptial agreements, stating: “The widespread utilization of halakhic prenuptial agreements is a critical step in inoculating our community against the distressful problem of the modern-day agunah. Use of halakhic prenuptial agreements should become standard throughout the Jewish community for all engaged couples.” The rabbinical court Beth Din of America, held in high regard by the Israeli State Rabbinical Courts, has been advocating “The Prenup” for decades. True, Ultra-Orthodox rabbinic figures in the United States may have some reservations, but they have never published vitriolic attacks such as the ultra-Orthodox personalities in Israel have done.

If, nonetheless, American couples would feel more secure relying on the opinion of great rabbis regarding the RCA/BDA prenuptial agreement, one can assuredly rely on the approbations of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l; Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg; Rabbi Yitzchok Liebes, zt”l; Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz; Rabbi Chaim Zimbalist; and Rabbi Asher Weiss. The opinions of many other major rabbis and poskim who approve of various prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal are also well known.

The worthiness of the halakhic prenuptial agreement of the RCA and the BDA, the Israeli Agreement of Mutual Respect, and the Tzohar agreement (as well as the growing number of new prenuptial agreements all built upon the same mechanism of an obligation to spousal support) is being actively determined and will ultimately continue to be determined both by the numbers of Orthodox rabbis and the number of couples who utilize them.

Kowtowing to bullies never brings about a positive outcome. This type of intimidating action reaches an existential level when applied to Orthodox Judaism. Fully understanding that the Torah’s true ways are the ways of pleasantness (noam) is a strong basis for feeling secure in each individual’s or community’s’ chosen rabbinic leaders. That is the path (derekh) to shalom. Trust your own rabbis.

Rachel Levmore
Rabbinical Court Advocate Dr. Rachel Levmore, serves as the Director of the Agunot and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and JAFI. She is an author of the Israeli halakhic prenuptial “Agreement for Mutual Respect", the author of "Min'ee Einayikh Me'Dimah" on prenuptial agreements, and a member of Israel's Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.