Noa Shashar, Gevarim Ne’elamim: Agunot ba’merhav ha’ashkenazi, 1648-1850; Vanished Men: Agunot in the Ashkenazi Realm,1648-1870 (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2020). 470 pages, including Biblography and Index.
Noa Shashar has broken utterly new ground with the first book-length historical treatment of agunot (from the Hebrew for ‘anchor,’ ‘ogen)-- women chained in marriage against their will. In the long period that Shashar studies, the vast majority of agunot came into this circumstance through the disappearance of husbands through death in criminal incidents or accidents during travel, or through desertion (as opposed to today, when the most common cause of iggun is the refusal of husbands to give wives a rabbinic divorce [gett], and extortion for payoffs in money, property, and child custody). Until very recently, iggun—Jewish marital captivity—has been treated entirely as a legal issue, the subject of learned debates among halakhic decisors and scholars of halakha in an entirely androcentric, patriarchal discourse that took no interest in the lives of the victims of this captivity except as objects of theoretical discussion and normative pronouncement. This approach also precluded recognition of iggun as a social and communal institution and a major social pathology, like slavery.
Since rabbinic marriage is unilateral, enacted through the husband (baal; literally, ‘master, owner’) acquiring exclusive access to his wife’s sexuality and reproductivity and sanctifying these as his preserve (kinyan; kiddushin, respectively), rabbinic divorce, similarly, is the husband’s unilateral prerogative, to be enacted at his free and conscious volition. Women became agunot when their husbands simply disappeared in circumstances often unknown, or when their deaths were affirmed by one or more witnesses but which affirmation did not meet complex and far from self-evident halakhic criteria to establish the victim’s identity and death. There is no time limit on this state and no means to escape it short of the husband’s reappearance and grant of a valid gett or, in exceedingly rare cases (Shashar mentions none and there is no listing for ‘hafkaat kiddushin’ in the book’s Index), rabbinic action that finds the contraction of the marriage to have been invalid and annuls it.
Prior to Shashar’s book, Haim Sperber published several articles that treat agunot as historical subjects, his scholarly eye, like Shashar’s, focused on eastern Europe, his, in a later period than the one she studies.1 I wrote the first encyclopedia article on this subject.2 Shashar’s 470-page work has placed this subject squarely in the arena of Jewish historical inquiry.
Her tome originated as a doctoral thesis under the mentorship of Immanuel Etkes. The book is the product of meticulous and broad research about rabbinic law, theoretical and applied, and about historical conditions across the map of Ashkenaz, a geo-social entity from eastern France to Ukraine which Shashar, like Jacob Katz in Tradition and Crisis, treats as a coherent cultural entity. Her main sources are rabbinic but her methods are social-historical. Shashar brilliantly makes and demonstrates the critical distinction between theoretical pronouncements about iggun in rabbinic responsa, she’elot u’teshuvot, and the actions which major rabbinic authorities (poskim) and courts actually took when agunot came before them seeking relief. Apologists often cite the former material, which tends to recommend leniency, as proof that rabbis ‘left no stone unturned’ to release agunot from captivity. Shashar’s study of rabbinic court and communal records establishes definitively that not only were rabbinic leniency and dogged efforts to find ways to free agunot not the norm but that new stringencies were enacted to make the already poor odds of agunot obtaining release all but impossible. Indeed, she shows that leniency itself (kula), became anathema, behavior which established and up-and-coming poskim alike, felt would imperil their rabbinic reputations and prospects; poskim, she shows, were loathe to be thought of as lenient, in particular, about the sensitive area of hilkhot ishut, patriarchal control of women’s marital status. A woman who was not divorced according to rabbinic criteria or acknowledged a widow and who re-married or just had sexual relations with another man, was an adultress under rabbinic law and subject to extreme financial and social sanctions, including having any children born to her classed and treated as mamzerot/im, a category more similar to the Indian Dalit caste than to the western category of ‘bastard.’ Taboos about this in traditional society were (and remain, including in Israeli secular society), very potent and worked (and work), to keep agunot chained in their state.
Poskim of the period and place Shashar studies rendered release from iggun practically impossible by requiring the unanimous agreement of two and sometimes three other poskim—that is, not just rabbis but recognized, ranking authorities—before they would act in cases where they themselves thought grounds for release existed. That is, they did not seek corroboration-- or dissent-- when they felt grounds for release did not exist—behavior which would indicate a desire to ‘leave no stone unturned’ to enable liberating the agunot. Rather, they sought the judgments of other authorities when they saw grounds for release, the bias being against release. If nothing else, the requirement of supporting rulings by additional poskim meant a vastly longer and more expensive process: either the agunah herself or a paid, male agent, whose travel, lodging, and service fees she had to cover, would have to travel to distant locations and present the case for adjudication multiple times, over years, the court fees for which the agunah would also have to bear. This added burden itself greatly limited the possibility of most agunot even attempting to obtain relief, since the vast majority of Jews were poor and could afford no such process. Some poskim, she shows, declined even to consider cases of agunot, which itself consigned the women to perpetual marital captivity.
The imposition of the stringency she documents, Shashar emphasizes, was not only not mandated by halakha but contradicts the only time the Talmud recommends leniency in ruling ‘mishum igguna akilu bah rabbanan’—’about agunah cases, the rabbis ruled leniently’ (BT, Gittin, 3a; Yevamot, 85a). Posek stringency in regard to agunot also conflicted with leniency in other areas, for instance, in the rulings of the eminent poskek, Yehezkel Landau (1713-1793), described in other contexts as enlightened and ‘renowned for his bold and often lenient decisions, especially on matters involving the welfare of the community.’3 Landau rejected the plea of the rabbi of Aszod, Hungary, to release a woman whose husband converted and took all their possessions, decreeing that ‘so long as [the woman] does not obtain a gett from the convert, she shall remain an agunah’ (Shashar, p.318, n.131, my translation). Shashar ties Landau’s rigidity about marriage and divorce, in part at least, to his anxiety about the centralizing, absolutist State under Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), one of whose targets was the parallel system of rabbinic law under which his Jewish subjects lived, and in particular, to anxiety about designs to have marriage (and for Jews, divorce), made civil functions. The response to any claim that these functions could be taken over by the State was to inflate the expertise needed to adjudicate rabbinic marriage and divorce, claims about which Landau made in what became a very influential halakhic tract, Sefer hukkei ha’ishut—The Book of Marital Laws—which he wrote in response to Joseph II’s request for clarifications about Jewish marital law. Joseph II made his inquiry in the context of his Edict of Toleration of 1782. Shashar thus ties increasing rigidity in Ashkenazic rabbinic ruling to the emergence of reforms of Jewish status in the modernizing European State and the perceived threat of modernity altogether, a theme other scholars have argued but which she shows was particularly pronounced in the adjudication of cases of iggun and manifested in disregard for and callousness toward agunot.
Although it is impossible to construct statistics about the numbers of agunot, since no authority kept such records, it is clear from Shashar’s account that the problem was widespread: brigandry on the roads when Jews, in particular, traveled for economic reasons; wars; and pogroms—her book’s starting date is the aftermath of the Khmelnytsky pogroms that shook Polish Jewry—meant that men disappeared with regularity, and this is aside from iggun caused by desertion, when men absconded in order to evade supporting their families or giving the wife a gett and paying a divorce settlement. Gett extortion existed then, too, as did extortion for halitsa—the release of childless widows from the requirement to marry the late-husband’s brother (levirate marriage), even in Ashkenaz, where polygyny was long-since prohibited, since even a married levir had claims to compensation for releasing his sister-in-law to marry of her own accord. Shashar documents a case of several brothers in succession, one of them, a convert, attempting to extort such a widow for halitsa, and shows that some women preferred to remain agunot rather than accede to such extortion (pp.90-128.)
Shashar used the communal archives of nearly 30 Jewish communities, including some of the era’s most important—Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbeck; Metz, Posen; Fuerth; Prague, Frankfurt, Krakow. She also uses memoirs from the period and produces the singularity of a detailed letter by an agunah, which she brings in its entirety (pp. 304-309).
She shows that, in a period in which the incidence of iggun was high and relief from it, rare-to-unheard of, agunot were victimized secondarily by social and economic discrimination, tarred in their anomalous status as married yet without husbands as a threat to social (sexual) order and subject in some communities to prohibitions of employing them (even) as servants. Poverty and persecution flowed from the predicament of agunot and compounded it.
Shashar shows agunot to have been a sub-class of women whose ranks any woman married under rabbinic law could join in an instant, a sub-class whose presence in Jewish society was normal and unquestioned, iggun an accepted, assumed fact of life, a reality, we note, which remains the case today. Shashar’s book paints a dismal picture of rabbinic and communal behavior to agunot across the map of Europe from early modernity to the mid-nineteenth century. Her work is a major step in historicizing this subject, which should rightly take its place as a central chapter in Jewish social and communal history and the history of Jewish women. Her book is also required reading for any scholar of halakha in modernity.
Shashar’s book is path breaking in conception and execution. Written in lucid, academic Hebrew, its publication in a fluid English translation is a strong desideratum.
Shulamit S. Magnus
Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College
1. See Haim Sperber, ‘Agunot, 1851-1914, An Introduction,’ in Familles juives Europe-Mediterranee XIXe-XXe siecles, Annales de Demographique Historique, 2018, No.2; ‘Agunot, Immigration, and Modernization, from 1857 to 1896,’ in Mishpachah: The Jewish Family in Tradition and in Transition (Studies in Jewish Civilization, Vol. 27), ed. Leonard J. Greenspoon, 79–108 (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2016); ‘Responsa Books as a source for the investigation of the Phenomenon of Agunot,’ Quntres: An Online Journal for History, Culture, and the Art of the Jewish Book 2, no. 1: 47–58.https://taljournal.jtsa.edu/index.php/quntres/article/ viewFile/63/29; ‘The Agunot Phenomenon from 1851 to 1914 – An Introduction,’ Annales de démographie historique 136 (2018/2): 107– 35; ‘The Agunot Phenomenon in Eastern European Jewish Society During 1857–1896 As Reflected in the Jewish Press’ [Hebrew], Kesher, Journal of Media and Communications History in Israel and the Jewish World 40 (2010): 102–108. Sperber has a book in press, The Plight of Jewish Deserted Wives, 1851-1900: A Social History of East European Agunah (sic) (Sussex Academic Press).
2. ‘Agunot’ https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/agunot. I have completed a book manuscript whose historical section attempts to construct a history of iggun and agunot across the map of the Jewish world from the seventh century CE to the present.
3. Daniel Sinclair, ‘Halakhic Methodology in the Post-Emancipation Period: Case Studies in the Responsa of R’ Yechezkel Landau,’in Le’ela, A Journal of Judaism Today (April, 1988), pp.16-22.