(September 21, 2020 / JNS) Jewish tradition cites Rosh Hashanah as the day on which the world was created. The day on which the creation of the first man was completed and, in effect, humanity was created.
On Rosh Hashanah, we mark the birth of the human race. To a large extent, this is the day on which we are required to justify our existence on earth. If not before God, then at the very least we should be able to gaze inwards and state that our time here has not been wasted. In terms of personal introspection, we would like to think that we have realized our purpose in life, furthered the existence of a better society, contributed our talents and skills, and fulfilled our dreams. I also tend to examine how much pleasure we gained—have we enjoyed the bounty of the world we were born into?
At the end of the day, when we balance the different forces at play, we aim for our good deeds to outweigh our sins, and the more good we have added to the world, the better. It is no coincidence that Tishrei’s astrological sign is a scale, as it is only right that we weigh our actions, not only before the Creator, but mainly before ourselves.
Nevertheless, soul-searching should not remain at the individual level. It should also be conducted by us as a society, to examine our achievements and acknowledge our failures. We have quite a few impressive successes, however, we are not short of disastrous failures. I consider humanity’s most impressive failure the fact that throughout history we have managed to undermine the world’s foundation: equality.
The simple message that arises from the story of creation is that God created humankind from a single source. We have all been created in God’s image; we are all equal. We even stand before God as equals on the Day of Judgment; each of us rewarded for our good deeds and required to account for our wrongdoings. All people, regardless of religion, race, or gender.
Yet human discourse is one that perpetuates disparities and sanctifies social classes. Women and men, Jews and non-Jews, citizens and refugees, all skin colors, all shades of faith—all are judged by hierarchical scales and rewarded according to their position on the social ladder. We are a society that violates equal rights with a vengeance. We have the audacity to claim that inequality is a divine decree.
That is a colossal failure.
As an Orthodox Jewish woman, I experience inequality in each of my primary identity groups. Reality never ceases to challenge our desire for equal rights. As a professional, and as the director of Yad La’isha—an association that acts to release agunot, or women who are refused a get, a Jewish writ of divorce—I rage at the inequality towards women in Jewish divorce proceedings. Jewish genius has come up with such a wide range of inventions, yet it also enables get-refusal and agunot, a condition unparalleled in the world.
If we are soul-searching, then Orthodox society must answer for the condition of agunot in the Jewish world. Yad La’isha has released some 1,000 Jewish women so far through persistent, tiresome struggles with malicious husbands who hold their wives captive under the guise of halachah, Jewish law. Unfortunately, the next 1,000 agunot are already in the system. One woman is set free and another takes her place in captivity, in a never-ending vicious cycle.
The phenomenon of agunot leaves women imprisoned by their husbands in dead marriages. They are prevented from having children, denied intimacy and forced to live in loneliness.
This is an intolerable phenomenon that Jewish morality cannot allow to continue.
On Rosh Hashanah, the failure to find a solution for the agony of agunot drags the scales of the Jewish people all the way down.
It is no longer possible to make do with soul-searching aimed only at recounting our individual sins. We must push ourselves to amend our reality and add goodness to the world.
We all stand and rail against husbands who purposefully chain their wives to dead marriages. However, the true righteous do not merely lament evil, they add justice to the world. The coming year must be the year in which we provide Jewish women with justice and release them from the chains and terror that hang over them.
Do you want to change the world? Begin within the Jewish home—it is time for justice to be done and for a halachic solution to be found for the issue of agunot, which is a shameful stain on the Jewish world.
Pnina Omer is the director of Yad La’isha: the Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot, part of the international Ohr Torah Stone network.
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