Shulamit Reinharz on celebrating International Women's Day

Shulamit Reinharz

Shulamit Reinharz is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology. She founded the Women's Studies Research Center and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The following is her column this week for The Jewish Advocate.

Justice in Canada and for all
By Shulamit Reinharz

How will you celebrate International Women's Day this year? In case you have not made any plans, I have some suggestions.

IWD takes place on March 8, which this year falls on the 13th of Adar, the beginning of the Fast of Esther. For Jews, celebrating Purim compels us to remember at least one great Jewish woman in our history.

Perhaps, to mark IWD, you could refrain from eating on the day before Purim when the Fast of Esther occurs. This pre-Purim ritual encourages us to imitate Esther, who fasted for three days to focus her thoughts and drum up courage to go before her husband, the king, reveal her identity as a Jew and plead for justice for her people.

Jewish women's rights activists around the world have blended the ancient story of Esther with contemporary struggles for justice, and have declared the Fast of Esther to be International Agunah Day. Agunah is Hebrew for "a chained woman," and it refers to a person chained to her husband by Jewish law - not literally but legally.

How does a Jewish woman become "chained?" By being married to a man who refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce under any conditions; by having a husband who disappears, leaving her uncertain if she is married; or by being married to a man who will give her a divorce only if she pays a bribe or gives him access to the children.

There probably are agunot wherever there is a Jewish community. (However, a representative of the Jews of Scotland told me with pride that there are no agunot in that country.) There should be no agunot anywhere. There is no male counterpart to an agunah, because, according to Jewish law, it is the man who grants the divorce, not the woman.

Many organizations around the world deal with the agunot problem by trying to find ways to use Jewish law to create justice for women, or by applying the sanctions of secular law to religious law. The intersection between secular and religious law in contemporary society is an important new topic for legal theorists, sociologists and women's rights activists.

This leads to my second suggestion for celebrating International Women's Day. You could hear Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella of the Supreme Court of Canada deliver a public address, "What History Teaches Us: Gender and Human Rights in the New Century," on March 8 at the Usdan Student Center at Brandeis University. That court delivered a recent landmark ruling concerning the rights of agunot.

Justice Abella might not be a household name, but she should be. In 2004, she was named the first Jewish woman to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. Born in a displaced person's camp in Stuttgart, Germany in 1946, Abella's passion for justice grew out of her identity as a Jew and a child of Holocaust survivors.

The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling in the case of Bruker v. Marcovitz confronted the legal dilemma of agunot. Stephanie Bruker and Jason Marcovitz divorced in Quebec civil court after 11 years of marriage. As part of the divorce settlement, Marcovitz agreed to appear before the Montreal beit din (Jewish religious court) to grant Bruker a get (a divorce document that would allow her to remarry under Jewish law). However, after he obtained what he wanted out of the divorce settlement, he refused to grant her a get - for 15 years.

After exhausting all the resources in the Jewish community to secure her get, Bruker sued her ex-husband for damages in civil court. She was awarded $47,500 at trial, but the Quebec Court of Appeal subsequently ruled against her. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which restored the damages award, finding that Canadian law must find a way to help women subjected to discrimination under religious laws.

Writing for the majority in the 7- 2 ruling, Abella concluded: "Despite the moribund state of her marriage, Ms. Bruker remained, between the ages of 31 and 46, Mr. Marcovitz's wife under Jewish law, and was dramatically restricted in the options available to her in her personal life. This represented an unjustified and severe impairment of her ability to live her life in accordance with this country's values and her Jewish beliefs. Any infringement of Mr. Marcovitz's freedom of religion is inconsequential compared to the disproportionate disadvantaging effect on Ms. Bruker's ability to live her life fully as a Jewish woman in Canada."

Whether you fast, attend a lecture or learn about how you can help agunot, you will easily recognize the connections among the Persian Queen Esther, International Women's Day and Canadian Judge Abella.

Justice Abella's talk, which is free and open to the public, is the 2009 Diane (Dina) Markowicz Memorial Lecture on Gender and Human Rights. The lectures were established by Sylvia Neil, founder of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, to honor her late sister Diane, a student at Brandeis who was deeply committed to gender equality and social justice. For information, contact Lindsay Fieldman (

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