By Yael C.B. Machtinger –
Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, marks International Agunah Day, with the purpose of publicizing the plight of agunot, women who are not able to obtain a get, a religious divorce, from their husbands.
The name Esther is related to the Hebrew word “hester”, meaning hidden. For nine years, Esther guarded her secret “shehayta mesateret dvareha”, she “hid her words” (Megilla, 13a). The Purim story heroine was kept silent.
How does this connect to International Agunah Day?
Like Esther’s “hacharesh tacharishi”, “keeping silent” (Esther, 4:14), the voices of agunot have been hidden and silenced. Consequently, when a mesurevet-get, a woman whose husband has refused to grant her a get can voice her void, give sounds to her silence, we must embrace it. While some, such as Susan Weiss in her recent article in the Forward’s Sisterhood blog, might find the act of shaming shameful, I contend that any opportunity to empower mesuravot-get, and to recast the characters, making abusive husbands the object of shame, must be embraced.
“E-shaming”, a term I coined in my dissertation, is a constructive, re-imagined, rebooted, version of traditional kherem, banishment/ostracism initiated by Rabbeinu Tam in the 12th Century, a new grassroots approach to induce husbands to grant gets, despite the abusive control that is their get-refusal. It is the interaction between get refusal and technology wherein technology helps remedy instances of get-refusal by exposing abusive husbands as those who should be ashamed. While this nexus is not novel, innovative and intensified use of technology in our digital age is a fresh take on remedying this deep-rooted phenomenon (one which persists despite the perceived success of legal regulation, particularly in Toronto, Canada).
E-shaming is more beneficial than other grassroots remedies because it cuts across boundaries and networks of affiliation existing in the real world. The critique of traditional kherem is that abusive husbands can join new communities or synagogues easily, leaving their bad behaviour behind them. Thus, the effects of kherem are not as severe or impactful as they were centuries or even decades ago, when moving was more onerous and expensive and congregations less prevalent. E-shaming, reverses this effect. Making a traditional tool, criticized as being virtually obsolete in a global world, into an expedient, digital tool of the 21st century and beyond embraces the free-flow of information, making it so that husbands too are chained to their choices to chain wives.
Yoni Goldstein, editor of the Canadian Jewish News wrote in her article, The Media’s Role in Helping Agunot, believes, “If media and Internet can be harnessed to further this agenda, that only adds another powerful weapon in this essential battle.” Rachel Levmore, Osnat Sharon, Jeremy Stern and others have argued that online shaming is successful. “The term ‘shaming’ is integral to the vocabulary of the Facebook and Twitter generation…the Town Square has been replaced by a virtual space in which one’s individual influence is, at all times, a finger click away”, argued Osnat in her articles in the Times of Israel, Using the Power of Shaming for the Good. Jewish communities the world over are employing their individual, online influence to fight injustices of get-refusal wherever it rears its ugly head. In this new age of technology, we shifted from the Gallery in Yiddish newspapers, to YouTube clips or hashtags, pressuring men to “do the right thing”.
Most importantly, this nexus, of get refusal and technology, enables women to be active participants in navigating complex legal orders, simultaneously challenging the imagery of the passive victims they are portrayed as. Agunot are depicted as submissive and powerless, reflected in the images of anonymous shackled hands, yet transforming mesuravot-get from passive, helpless victims to active participants in campaigns to exact gets through the innovative use of e-shaming is momentous, not shameful! Social media has become a platform whereby mesuravot-get can recast the mistaken perceptions about them and assert their agency (something we should celebrate as feminists, by the way).
That said, not every agunah would feel comfortable with e-shaming, and I am not advocating that women go to press necessarily. Individuals must be respected and public campaigns are not always in everyone’s best interests. Moreover, e-shaming may not exact a get in every case though the converse is also true. E-shaming may and has exacted a get in many cases. Regardless, e-shaming always exacts success because it empowers mesuravot-get.
In Toronto, this would be particularly potent being that no other remedies have been effective to date- a viable prenup has yet to be legally and halakhically endorsed. My objective is to alert the Jewish community to the e-shaming phenomenon and the transformative successes it has been known to produce in challenging dominant perceptions about agunot as weak, passive, submissive victims, and in challenging dominant normative reactions by communities (particularly Toronto) which deny the existence get-refusal altogether.
E-shaming contributes to the unsilencing and self-narration of mesuravot get and I welcome giving them a platform from which to tell their stories. Significantly, e-shaming has the power to redirect shame. Most of the women I interviewed (dozens in New York and Toronto) described the shame they feel, having endured abuse, wronged their families by failing at marriage, disappointed the community and the marriage ideal the religion propagates, among other shames they described. If empowerment can be achieved through e-shaming, that is noteworthy and we mustn’t be ashamed of that. We must use every tool in our toolbox.
Let us not stand idly by, allowing the everyday heroines of our generation to remain hidden, to be silenced as Esther was. Let us ‘megaleh seter’, or ‘reveal the hidden’, by empowering agunot and their narratives on this International Agunah Day and always.