Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Solving the Agunah Problem III

The new Edah Journal is out and it contains continued discussion of R. Michael J. Broyde's review in the previous issue of Dr. Aviad Hacohen's book Tears of the Opressed (original review essay - PDF, continued discussion - PDF). I was privy to this debate long before publication (R. Broyde was kind enough to thank me in his acknowledgments for my minimal contributions to his response). When I first saw this exchange, I hoped that the journal's editor would utilize his prerogative and strongly edit the back-and-forth. Unfortunately, his editing was minimal.

In my opinion, Dr. Hacohen's response to the book review -- the very idea of an author responding to a review is more than a bit unconventional -- should have been confined solely to the contents of his book. He claims that R. Broyde misunderstood his book and that Dr. Hacohen does not, in fact, claim that defects in a husband that arise after marriage can nullify the marriage and obviate the need for a religious divorce. R. Broyde counters that Dr. Hacohen states this explicitly in his book and, if he is retracting, should make it clear that the relevant passage is incorrect. If I were the editor of the Edah Journal, I would have chopped up Dr. Hacohen's letter and only allowed this portion of the debate to take place.

The rest of Dr. Hacohen's letter contains ad hominem attacks on R. Broyde and the American rabbinate in general that are totally inappropriate and almost entirely factually incorrect. The truth is that the American rabbinate struggle with agunos and free most of them. According to this chart, published by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, the Beth Din of America resolves some 97% of divorce cases each year. As R. Broyde attests, this beis din uses many different approaches to resolve cases, including nullifying the marriage when appropriate (R. Broyde, a member dayan of this beis din, has written extensively about when this method is appropriate and when not).

Dr. Hacohen also admits that his book is purely theoretical and cannot be used as a defense of any practices, such as those of R. Rackman's beis din. His arguments that the book has nothing to do with R. Rackman's beis din are easily rebutted by R. Broyde, who has much more evidence from the book's publicity than he presents in his response. Regardless, a "review essay" is expected to move beyond the mere contents of the book and venture into the essay's author's thoughts on broader issues that the book raises. That is almost the definition of a review essay, as opposed to a mere review (see, for example, here).

A point that Dr. Hacohen repeats a number of times is that there are thousands of women who are agunos. I don't doubt that this is true, but the statement is largely meaningless for the simple reason that Dr. Hacohen fails to define the term agunah. Is a woman who is in the midst of a long divorce but whose husband will definitely cooperate in the same category as a battered woman whose cruel husband refuses to cooperate? What about a woman who demands a divorce without evidence of any fault on the part of the husband? To my knowledge, there has been little discussion in the Jewish community about the pros and cons of no-fault divorce and, perhaps, we should not label a husband who refuses a request for divorce without reason as recalcitrant. Perhaps not. I'd like to know what is included in the statistic of "thousands of women".

One of the most significant contributions in this exchange is the appendix to R. Broyde's response in which he reviews the scientific literature about whether abusive behavior can be assumed to be caused by a latent personality defect, an assumption underlying the current reasoning of R. Rackman's beis din. As R. Broyde demonstrates, the experts on this subject consistently rebut this claim through study after study.

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