Rabbi Mintz

Rabbi Henkin And The First Heter Agunot In America

The tragedy of the agunah, the woman who is unable to receive a get from her husband, has plagued the Jewish people since time immemorial. Rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries have contended with this issue in an attempt to free agunot to remarry. In the United States this issue was first formally addressed following World War I. European Jews soldiers, fighting on both sides of the war, were among those killed in battle. As soldiers are generally young, they often left childless widows who required a halitzah from the dead husband’s brother in order to remarry. A number of these brothers had immigrated to the United States where visas were difficult to acquire. Therefore, the Agudath HaRabbanim sent a letter to its membership in 1922 alerting them to this situation and offering assistance in helping these women acquire temporary visas to the United States thereby allowing these women to obtain a halitzah and to remarry.

With the growth of the American Jewish community in the early part of the twentieth century, Jews began to assimilate and the predicament of the Jewish wife whose husband had abandoned her to live with a non-Jewish woman became an ever increasing phenomenon.[1] Many rabbis attempted to free the Jewish wife to remarry, even though she was unable to find the husband and receive a get. Some of the solutions were based on broad institutional enactments, while others dealt with the problem on a case-by-case analysis. One of the principles underlying the foundation of much of this discussion is the halakhic status of civil marriages and of weddings performed by Reform rabbis. Rabbis Feinstein and Henkin disagreed about the status of these marriages and this disagreement played an important role in their view of the agunah problem. Understanding their particular views is vital for the understanding of the agunah issue and for the appreciation of the important roles that these two American rabbinic giants played on this issue.

Rabbi Henkin discussed this issue in a number of articles and teshuvot. His earliest treatment of civil marriage appears in a series of articles in Hapardes in 1934, where Rabbi Henkin argued that a civil marriage is considered a marriage according to Jewish law and that a get would be required to terminate such a marriage.[2] He explained that a couple is considered halakhically married even though they did not have a Jewish ceremony and do not intend to be married according to Jewish law. According to Rabbi Henkin, the validity of the marriage is achieved by the fact that the couple lives together as husband and wife. He added that the Jews who see them together as a couple satisfy the requirement of witnesses in establishing the halakhic status of the marriage. In an article in his book, Perushei Ibra, Rabbi Henkin explained the rational for his position through the comparison to a similar historical situation.[3] He quoted a fascinating responsum of Rivash, Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (1326-1408), communal rabbi in Algeria who had fled Spain following the anti-Jewish riots of 1391.[4] Rivash described that he was approached by a woman who had been a converso in Majorca. After she had escaped to North Africa she asked whether she could remarry even though she did not have a get from her first husband. She explained that she had been married by a priest after both she and her husband had been forced to convert to Christianity. After the marriage they had lived together as a married couple. The husband was not available to give her a get. Rivash decided in this case that the woman could remarry and did not require a get. Rabbi Henkin argued that Rivash’s case is unique as this couple was married by a priest and no longer lived among Jews. This situation, argued Rabbi Henkin, cannot be compared to the American situation where a man and woman are married by a civil authority and live together among Jews.

Rabbi Feinstein responded to Rabbi Henkin’s decision in a number of teshuvot in Iggerot Moshe. In the earliest teshuvah, dated June 28, 1959, Rabbi Feinstein argued that a civil marriage does not require termination via a get.[5] Rather, the couple can remarry even without a get. He explained that in the United States where people easily move in and out of relationships, the fact that a couple gets married in a civil ceremony and then lives together is not considered proof that they are married according to the halakhah. He relied on the precedent of Rivash and argued that American civil marriages can be equated to that situation of the fifteenth century. Interestingly, he wrote that even though the halakhah does not require a get, if it is possible for the wife to obtain a get she should follow the opinion of Rabbi Henkin and terminate the marriage through a get. It would appear that Rabbi Feinstein would agree that in a situation where the wife received a get she would not be able to marry a kohen.

Concerning a couple that was married by a Reform rabbi, Rabbi Feinstein wrote in a number of teshuvot that this wedding is not recognized according to the halakhah and a get is not required to terminate this marriage.[6] He explained that the only time the wedding would be valid is in a situation where there are two observant Jew who witness the ceremony. However, he claimed that even in that case the Reform rabbi often does not perform the marriage ceremony properly so the wedding would not be valid. Concerning the question of whether the fact that the couple lives together as husband and wife is a factor, Rabbi Feinstein wrote that a Reform ceremony is worse than a civil ceremony. A couple that gets married in a civil ceremony understands that this ceremony is not a Jewish one and that the fact that they live together binds them as a Jewish couple. However, a couple that is married in a Reform ceremony believes that this ceremony is a religious one and do not have the necessary intention of consummating the marriage when they live together. Nevertheless, he believed that if possible the woman should arrange to receive a get.[7]

In 1964, Rabbi Henkin wrote a letter to an unnamed rabbi who had ruled that a get is not needed to terminate a marriage when the ceremony had been performed by a Reform rabbi. Rabbi Henkin explained:

And the wonder of wonders, which makes one’s hair stand on edge, is that you are lenient regarding a marriage performed by a Reform rabbi. Is there really a need for an officiating rabbi? If a Jewish man says to a Jewish woman “you are mine” in front of witnesses, then she becomes his wife. And, if there are no witnesses at the ceremony, the fact that they live together as a married couple for many years is considered acceptable testimony. What difference does it make if the witnesses were Reform?[8]

Rabbi Henkin admonishes this unnamed rabbi that he must not allow other rabbis to rely on this incorrect lenient opinion.

Rabbis Feinstein and Henkin disagreed regarding both civil marriages and Reform ceremonies. While the issues are connected, they revolve around different considerations. Rabbi Feinstein looked at American society as a promiscuous one in which a man and woman living together did not reflect a relationship of commitment while Rabbi Henkin saw a more traditional society where relationships reflected commitment. It is fascinating that two Torah scholars who lived several blocks from one another could see American society so differently. The generation of rabbis and scholars who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe were forced to reconcile their recollections of the past with the realities of the present. That reconciliation took different forms for different rabbis.

It would appear that with regard to a couple married in a Reform ceremony, the differing rulings of these two Torah giants were based on their understanding of the Reform movement. Rabbi Feinstein believed that Reform rabbis were attempting to undermine halakhic Judaism and anything that they did was problematic and needed to be avoided. On the other hand, Rabbi Henkin, while rejecting the religious positions of the Reform movement, did not feel that the Reform rabbis were a threat to the Orthodox. Consequently he felt that whether a wedding was conducted by a Reform rabbi was immaterial. Rabbis Feinstein and Henkin disagreed as to the extent to which the Reform movement created a risk to the Orthodox movement.[9]

The positions of Rabbis Feinstein and Henkin had critical implications for the issue of agunah. According to Rabbi Feinstein, if a couple was married civilly or by a Reform rabbi and then the husband refused to give a get, the wife may remarry as this marriage is not considered halakhically valid. According to Rabbi Henkin, in such a situation, the woman would require a get. It would appear that Rabbi Henkin’s understanding of civil and Reform marriages stands as a serious impediment to the resolution of the agunah problem. However, in an article written in 1928, Rabbi Henkin alerted the community to the fact that he was very much concerned with the problem of the agunah and began by describing the current situation:

In the past few years the problem of the agunah has increased in Europe and here in America. This is a question that burns in the entire world as to what we can do for our sisters to save them from the chains of agunah when their husbands disappear…For this reason there have been leniencies suggested here [the termination of civil marriages without a get]. However, since we have proven that these leniencies have no basis in halakhah, these leniencies are really stringencies to destroy lives and such should not be done in Israel.[10]

According to Rabbi Henkin, since civil marriages require a get, to allow women to remarry without a get creates illegitimate children from the second marriage.

While Rabbi Henkin felt that this approach of terminating civil marriages without a get was not a legitimate one, he was deeply committed to trying to find an acceptable solution to the agunah problem. Accordingly, Rabbi Henkin was the first American rabbi to offer a proposal to solve the Agunah problem. This proposal was suggested in the above article written in 1928 soon after his arrival in the United States. Henkin noted that the problem of agunah, experienced by women whose husbands had disappeared or by women who were unable to receive the necessary halitzah, was “a daily occurrence,” and he made the following suggestion: at the time of the wedding the husband must authorize that a get may be written and delivered in the future. He must allow the get to be written to cover a number of situations including one in which the husband refuses to provide a get to his wife for three years. At that time, the claim would be brought to a central beit din (in the original proposal, he wrote that this should be the Jerusalem beit din) and, if the beit din agrees, then a get would be written even if the husband opposes the writing at that time. Rabbi Henkin called for this proposal to be discussed and voted upon in a meeting of rabbis and that if approved, it would remain the standard practice for fifty years.[11]

However, in 1930 a development impacted on Rabbi Henkin’s proposal before it had the chance to be acted upon. Rabbi Louis Epstein, a leading Conservative rabbi from Boston and the president of the Rabbinical Assembly and its Committee on Jewish Law, suggested that prior to every marriage, the husband should appoint his wife as an agent to execute a divorce on his behalf. Thus, if the husband disappears or refuses to grant the get, the wife can, in effect, divorce herself. In that same year, Rabbi Epstein published a volume entitled Hatza’ah Lemaan Takanat Agunot that attempted to prove the halakhic foundation for this proposal. In 1935, the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic body of the Conservative movement, initially voted to accept this proposal.

In his volume, Rabbi Epstein described how he sent copies of his book to close to 1,000 rabbis asking for their opinions on his proposal. He explained that he received very few responses. While one of the letters was critical of his work, most of the letters were complimentary but argued that he could not proceed without the consensus of the leading halakhic authorities. He seemed encouraged by the nature of these responses inasmuch as they were not critical of his halakhic reasoning.[12] Among the letters that he received was a letter from Rabbi Henkin dated February 18, 1931. In this letter, Rabbi Henkin apologized for not having the time to study the book carefully. While Rabbi Henkin proceeded to make certain halakhic suggestions to Rabbi Epstein, the letter was in no way dismissive of his efforts. He even concluded the letter with the practical advice that if he wanted to send copies to all the rabbis of Europe as he proposed, it would become a very expensive undertaking.[13]

The Orthodox rabbinate responded to Rabbi Epstein’s proposal with disapproval and the Agudath HaRabbanim convened a meeting of rabbis during which various halakhic presentations were made arguing that Rabbi Epstein’s proposal was both impractical and halakhically unsound. In 1937, a volume was published by the Agudath HaRabbanim entitled Le’Dor Aharon which included correspondence from leading rabbis around the world opposing Rabbi Epstein’s proposal. In 1940, Rabbi Epstein published Le’Sheelat Ha-Agunah in which he attempted to support his view in light of the strong rabbinic opposition. The Orthodox rabbinate did not respond to this second volume and Rabbi Epstein’s proposal was never actually adopted in practice by the Conservative movement.[14]

Rabbi Henkin wrote an article that was included in Le’Dor Aharon.[15] In his lengthy essay, he explained his halakhic opposition to Rabbi Epstein’s proposal. Among other considerations, he concluded that it is nonsensical for the husband to appoint his wife to serve as the agent to write the get as she is the one who will be receiving the divorce.

Then he added:

“And I have already written that the reason that I have become involved in this battle is due to the fact that he [Rabbi Epstein] mentioned my proposal for the freeing of agunot … and I must escape from this comparison…My proposal was merely a suggestion and not meant as a halakhic decision…and when the volume Ain Tnai Be-Nisuin was published, I retracted from my position for even the greatest scholar has to follow the majority view.”[16]

Ain Tnai Be-Nisuin is a volume published in Vilna in 1930 by Judah Lubetsky, an Eastern European rabbinic scholar who served for many years as a rabbi in Paris. The volume was published in response to a decision by the Agudat Rabbanei Tzarfat in 1908 to allow a Jewish woman to remarry after a civil divorce based on a condition made at the time of the wedding that if the couple where to be divorced by the civil authorities then retroactively the original marriage would be nullified.[17] Rabbi Lubetsky collected letters from rabbinic scholars from around the world condemning this opinion and explaining that such a condition at the time of the marriage would not be valid and that the couple would still need a get.

Indeed, it would seem probable that in 1931 when Rabbi Henkin had written his initial letter to Rabbi Epstein he had not yet seen Ain Tnai Be-Nisuin and therefore did not reject Rabbi Epstein’s proposal at that time. By 1937, he had read Ain Tnai Be-Nisuin and felt compelled to both reject Rabbi Epstein’s proposal and to retract his own view. In the reprinted edition of Perushei Ibra, the pages that contain his initial proposal are bracketed with the words “hadru be” (I have retracted) written in the margin. While it is not clear whether this remarkable editorial decision was made by Rabbi Henkin or the editor of the later reprinted volume, it reflects both the seriousness and the sensitivity with which this issue was taken.

In the Iggerot Moshe, Rabbi Feinstein never made any reference to Rabbi Henkin’s proposal regarding agunot. While Rabbi Feinstein did not arrive in America until 1936 and may not have been aware of Rabbi Henkin’s proposal before it was retracted in 1937, Rabbi Henkin was well-known among Eastern European rabbis and his decisions would have been available to Rabbi Feinstein even before his arrival in New York.[18] However, there is another variable that must be considered to explain Rabbi Feinstein’s lack of reference to this proposal. Rabbis Feinstein and Henkin took different approaches to the attempt to solve the agunah problem. Rabbi Feinstein tried to free individual agunot as they approached him with their unique situations. As a posek, Rabbi Feinstein responded to individuals on a case by case basis and did not look for institutional policies. As a communal rabbi, Rabbi Henkin dealt both with individual cases and broad policies. His position concerning civil and Reform marriages was important for American Jewish life but did not impact on his institutional proposal for the resolution of the agunah problem. His agunah proposal was never enacted but nevertheless reflects the rabbinic approach that Rabbi Henkin embodied.

Rabbi Henkin’s proposal, although “officially” retracted, has been cited in halakhic literature since 1937. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, the foremost disciple of Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg and a leading Jewish philosopher of the American Orthodox community, offered a resolution to the agunah problem in 1967 in a volume entitled Tnai Be-Nisuin u-ve-Get. In this volume he reviewed the history of halakhic literature concerning the validity of a conditional marriage and argued for the introduction of a conditional marriage to prevent the tragedy of agunah. At the end of the book, he referred to Rabbi Henkin’s retraction of his proposal in 1937. Rabbi Berkovits wrote “We revere Rabbi Henkin’s greatness and piety. Yet, one is not permitted to sway from the truth as it appears to him.”[19] Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his critique of Rabbi Berkovits’ thesis, relied on the fact that Rabbi Henkin had rejected conditional marriages.[20] Rabbi Henkin, thirty years after he retracted his proposal, is still being utilized for both sides of this argument.

Finally, in an article in The Edah Journal in 2005, Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, an Atlanta-area rabbi, professor of law at the Emory University Law School and dayan in the Beth Din of America, offered a theoretical proposal to help free agunot. He explained that for the proposal to have any chance of acceptance among the rabbinic community it would need to combine three mechanisms into a single document:

“The three elements would be: conditions applied to the marriage (tenai be-kiddushin), authorization to give a get (harsha’ah), and broad communal ordinance to void a marriage (taqqanat ha-qahal)… Indeed, in the twentieth century alone, one can cite a list of luminary rabbinic authorities who have validated such agreements in one form or another, including Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin…”[21]

While this proposal is still only in the theoretical phase, Rabbi Henkin’s argument plays an important role in its formulation.

In the introduction to Perushei Ibra, Rabbi Henkin explained that he wrote this volume to correct the mistakes that have arisen in America in the area of marriage and divorce and to restore “the law to its proper foundations.”[22]

Rabbi Henkin’s innovation and courage continue to set a model in this difficult yet critical area.

[1] One rabbi who tirelessly dealt with issues of husband desertion was Rabbi Shaul Yedidyah Shochet, author of the Responsa volumes Sefer Tiferet Yedidyah (St. Louis, 1920), where nearly two-thirds of the first volume relates to agunot and gittin. See Jeremy Bressman, “‘Hurled into a World of Freedom’: Marital Breakdown in the American Jewish Immigrant Community,” (unpublished seminar thesis, Columbia University, 2006), 18. I thank Menachem Butler for providing this source.
[2] Hapardes 8:6 (September, 1934): 3-4; Hapardes 8:7 (October, 1934): 7-10 and Hapardes 8:8 (November, 1934): 10-12, reprinted in Lev Ivra (New York, 1956), 12-20. For an extensive and well-researched analysis of the disagreement between Rabbis Feinstein and Henkin concerning both civil marriages and Reform ceremonies, see Norman Frimer and Dov Frimer, “Reform Marriages in Contemporary Halakhic Responsa,” Tradition 21:3 (Fall 1984): 7-39.
[3] Perushei Ibra (New York, 1943) pp. 87-117. Perushei Ibra was reprinted as the first volume of Kitvei Hagri’a Henkin (New York, 1981).
[4] Rivash, no. 4; For a brief discussion of this period, see Philippe Wolff, “The 1391 Pogrom in Spain: Social Crisis or Not?” Past & Present 50 (1971): 4-18.
[5] Iggerot Moshe (New York, 1961), Even Haezer I, no. 74.
[6] Iggerot Moshe Even Haezer I, no. 76.
[7] Iggerot Moshe, Even Haezer IV, no. 75.
[8] Hapardes 38:7 (October, 1964): 5-6 and reprinted in Kitvei Hagri’a Henkin vol. 2, pp. 123-125.
[9] Neither Rabbi Feinstein nor Rabbi Henkin discussed whether their decisions would be extended to a ceremony officiated by a Conservative rabbi. According to Rabbi Henkin there should be no difference. However, the question remains whether Rabbi Feinstein would have required a get to terminate a wedding officiated by a Conservative rabbi.
[10] Perushei Ibra, p. 110
[11] Perushei Ibra, pp. 110-117.
[12] Le-She’elat Ha-Agunot (New York, 1940), p. 16
[13] This letter can be found in Tzvi Gertner and Bezalel Karlinsky, “Ain Tnai Be’Nisuin,” Yeshurun 9 (2001): 888.
[14] See Moshe Meiselman, Jewish Women in Jewish Law (New York, 1978), 105-107, and Marc B. Shapiro, Saul Lieberman and the Orthodox (University of Scranton Press, 2006), 11-13, for various descriptions (and full documentation [!] in the latter source) of the events surrounding — and the Orthodox responses to — the Epstein proposal.
[15] Le’Dor Aharon (Brooklyn, NY, 1937), pp. 105-110.
[16] Le’Dor Aharon, p. 109
[17] The events leading to the writing of this volume are described in the introduction to Ain Tnai Be-Nisuin (Vilna, 1930), 11-15. According to a letter in the London Jewish Chronicle written by a longtime rabbinical judge on the London Beth Din, Ain Tnai Be-Nisuin first appeared in 1928. The reissued 1930 edition appeared in an enlarged edition with a new forward by Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzensky. See Dayan Harris M. Lazarus, “Liberalism and Orthodoxy: The Problem of the Aguna,” London Jewish Chronicle (November 1, 1946), 11.
[18] Rabbi Aharon Kotler, who did not arrive in the United States until 1941, was aware and sharply critical of Rabbi Henkin’s proposal. See Mishnat Rabbi Aharon, vol 2 (Lakewood, NJ, 1985), no. 60. It is possible that Rabbi Kotler’s criticism influenced Rabbi Henkin’s decision to retract.
[19] Eliezer Berkovits, Tnai Be-Nisuin u-ve-Get (Jerusalem, 1967), p. 170.
[20] “Be-Inyan Tnai be-Nisuin,” Noam 12 (1970): 148. For a plethora of meticulous citations and a lucid description of the debate between Rabbis Berkovits and Kasher, see Marc B. Shapiro, Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy: The Life and Works of Rabbi Jehiel Jacob Weinberg 1884-1966 (Littman Library, 1999), 190-192, especially the extensively researched footnote 83.
[21] Michael J. Broyde, “Review Essay: An Unsuccessful Defense of the Bet Din of Rabbi Emanuel Rackman: The Tears of the Oppressed,” The Edah Journal 4:2 (Winter, 2005): 17, available here.
[22] Perushei Ibra, p. 16.

Rabbi Mintz is the rabbi of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a Modern Orthodox community he founded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2004. In 2022, he co-founded Project Ruth that educates potential conversion candidates and facilitates a thorough yet accessible Orthodox conversion to Judaism. He is also the Director of 929 English, a web-based project that promotes the daily study of a chapter of Tanakh. In addition, Rabbi Mintz is a member of the Talmud faculty at Yeshivat Maharat and has taught as an Adjunct Assistant Professor at City College, New York for six years.

He lives in Manhattan with his wife Sharon and has three children, Noam (and Lily), Ariel (and Ashley) and Shoshana and three grandchildren.