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A Chained Man

Thanks to the patchwork of laws about same-sex marriage, I got trapped in legal limbo when I wanted a divorce

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(Illustration Tablet Magazine; original images Shutterstock and Wikimedia Commons)
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My predicament was in no way as extreme as an agunah’s, and my travails were trivial compared to what agunot endure for months, years, or decades. I butted up against no adverse consequences in my communities, and I lacked no means of economic or other support. I was not extorted, intimidated, shamed, or shunned as a prelude to divorce; I was simply unable to get one.

And yet, even with the experiential gaps that stood between agunot and me, we lived in a shared limbo, chained indefinitely to a partner we no longer shared our lives with in practical terms, but unable to move forward.


Years passed. I dated off and on, but struggled with how to share my complicated background. My general practice was to avoid conversations about this part of my past as best as possible, lest I feel compelled to provide long stretches of explanatory context (or to at least try). For better or for worse, at no point did a relationship develop to the degree where I was comfortable doing so or where it seemed necessary.

Meanwhile, the rest of my life continued. I left Philadelphia, went from practicing law to matriculating at rabbinical school, studied in Israel, lived in New York City, and finally returned to Pennsylvania. But as far as I went, as far as the chain stretched, I stayed tethered to a part of my past and to someone whose whereabouts and circumstances were unknown to me.

This past July, my ex and I were in contact for the first time in nine years. He had moved to California, he said, and wanted to take advantage of laws there to officially end what remained of our relationship. I agreed, and we moved along amicably. Our court docket reflected my own labeling ambivalence, referring to our cause of action as a “Petition for Dissolution – Domestic Partnership” that concluded with a “Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage.” This lexical equivocation aside, any lingering legal linkage between us lapsed this year on Feb. 2, the date when the court order decreed our “marital status ends”; indifferent to Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostication, I left Groundhog Day 2013 with this particular shadow slightly shorter.

I’ve spent the past several months meandering from anxiety to sadness to relief to gratitude, revisiting stray memories and walking toward closure. I can’t say exactly what, at this late point, we’ve wrapped up, and I’m not sure if I’m divorced, single, “civilly disunited,” or something else. But among my certainties is this: I look forward to a day when religious and secular shackles are broken, freeing agunim and agunot of all kinds to move on with their lives.


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Levi Muncel says:

Marriage isn’t a Federal right, so any marriage isn’t Federally recognized.

whoffman says:

Actually, the federal government recognizes all marriages that individual states recognize, *except* for same-sex marriages–meaning that, thanks to DOMA, even if your state recognizes your same-sex marriage, the federal government does not. Federal recognition comes with more than 1,100 rights afforded by the federal government to all couples that individual states considered married — except for same-sex couples. Everything from immigration to taxation, Social Security to veterans benefits. Here’s a list:

Lawyers know- any type of marriage can lead to divorce -to them, money is money-equal opportunity?

oaklandj says:

Wow, what a story. I was thinking of the parallel to agunot myself when I read the headline.
Marriage equality will eventually come, after several fits and starts (to placate evangelicals and other social conservatives). In the meantime, this sort of mess is exactly why “separate but equal” is never that.

Perhaps you should have thought of all this before entering into a homosexual marriage.

I had always thought Lawyers were supposed to be smart. Well, another fallacy shot down.

I don’t know if you’re married, but if you are, did you think beforehand “is it going to be possible or easy or quick to divorce this person in the future” and let that influence your decision?

Karma’s a bitch. Especially when a lawyer forgets the golder rule: caveat emptor.

MonseyJew says:

I find the analogy at best inaccurate. As I am sure any
reflective, informed caring person would. I was agunah for many years. No one
dates you, no one “sets you up” you are alone, period–you get some sympathetic
nods around town and that’s about it. And we are not “sustained.” Most women (and yes it is a women only kind of thing like pregnancy) who wind up agunah do not have what you call “starter marriages.” The women who the status affects are almost exclusively Orthodox women. And as you may know women get pregnant in marriages so agunah wind up single mothers. And as you may have heard, they had access to information) in leafy Vermont, and wherever, single mothers do not bring in the big bucks that the white male makes. The rumor is true, there is real oppression in the world.

So no sir, hardly, not even a cute and certainly not a clever conceit: you were not an agunah. So you will forgive me if I don’t cry you a river. You know you are an agunah, day in and day out. Your analogy trivializes women, and is ultimately misogynist and narcissistic. Surprise. How rare is that? A man trivializing women never happens, unheard of. You had inconvenient paper work please do not be so callous and self absorbed as to ever imagine it was anything like being an agunah. Maybe you want to feel like an African American next—I mean go for it. Or better yet, as they say, check your privilege

So go right ahead and do what is wrong, again and life will bite you in the butt again…

I’m sorry but you did not have a problem with divorce. You were never married. A marriage is between a man and a woman. Just like you can’t marry someone under-aged, you can’t marry an animal, you can’t marry yourself, you can’t marry your child or your mother, YOU CAN’T MARRY A MAN, AND CALL IT A MARRIAGE. Sorry but that is what Judaism believes, as does most of the world’s civilizations and religions. You were nothing like an Aguna, how dare you compare your problem to their pain. They can’t marry, they can’t have children, they are imprisoned by their abusive ex. Unless being gay, is your religion, your civilization, your heritage, your total being, you need to evaluate if your sex-drive defines you and overrules everything else. My heterosexuality is a small part of my being, it does not rule me, dominate me, and define me. Before I am a heterosexual, I am a Jew, I am a husband, I am father, I am a son, I am a brother, I am a man. and only then would I mention my sexual preference if at all. Don’t be so proud, how are you building up the Jewish people? Tell us about how many children you have, how you have made a commitment to a Jewish woman, like your mother is, and you are continuing our people. Some things are forbidden, no matter how much we desire them, just like I can’t take my neighbor’s wife, I can’t take an underage girl, I can’t take my daughter, being “GAY” is just wrong. That’s the way it is.

herbcaen says:

between agunot and me, we lived in a
shared limbo, chained indefinitely to a partner we no longer shared our
lives with in practical terms, but unable to move forward… since your original religious ceremony was meaningless, you were not chained in the religious sense. Kind of like debating whether a woman who was circumcized in Africa needs a brit milah. What a useless exercise in navel gazing.

whoffman says:

Indeed, the writer was never married, because that was not an option at the time. But it is now, and in fact, two men CAN be married legally and call it marriage in many states, and many countries (including Israel, which recognizes same-sex marriages performed elsewhere), and many synagogues (including Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist). You may not like it, and your synagogue may not approve, but that doesn’t change that fact that most Americans, most Jewish denominations, and an overwhelming majority of American Jews do approve.

silverbackV says:

I can’t find any sympathy for this. Every string was pulled to get into this situation. Many people in this world are forced to live with their mistakes, this should be no exception.

oaklandj says:

He said that the closest analogy was to agunot, not that he knew what it was like to be an agunah (or that he was one). Furthermore, an Orthodox woman can leave her community and have her divorce decree respected; the author’s marriage could not be nullified until recent changes in law made that possible.
Any analogy is going to be imperfect. But maybe your intention was not to learn from his experience and sympathize. There are lots of conservative African-Americans who also believe that they “own” civil rights and are disgusted by gay activists who are fighting their own civil rights battle.

oaklandj says:

So people shouldn’t be allowed to get a divorce, period?

MonseyJew says:

Oh now I see, the author was trying to educate me? I am humbled, dumb ole little religious me—please forgive me—mea culpa. Of course an Orthodox women “need” to be “educated” how kind. “Leave the
community?” “Have their divorce decree respected in another place.” For your edification, the decree is a “Get” and agunas do not have a “Get”. And that is exactly why they are agunas.

But forgive me sir, I certainly did not mean to point out that you do not know what you are talking about—and yet forge ahead with advice. Please do not think it is your ignorance that I point out. I am only a woman and certainly not up to the task. Keep blathering, ignorance and bigotry.

Thanks for the suggestion and solution—move, leave Orthodoxy. That is really respectful. Your ragging bias is showing like carpenter’s
crack. Pull up your pants. Seriously, how smug to suggest we just abandon our way of life. Think of the end result of that– if we did that than people like
the author could not use us for faulty analogies. If you can forgive us we
intended to remain Orthodox. Even if you can’t comprehend or garner any respect for that—I know the author is fighting a tirelessly civil rights battle—paper work is oppressive, and so much more important than feeding kids as a single mother.

“Furthermore,” to borrow your language, next time you get that white man urge to put a woman in her place don’t make a fool of yourself doing it. Seriously, I should sympathize because a man has paperwork problems— heart wrenching. Bottom line, the author is misogynistic and trivializes women. As you do. He is ignorant of the laws of aguna, (as are you)
and to him it is merely a rhetorical device to compare the pain oppression and misery of the aguna’s existence to the inconvenience of his “paper work problems.” If that works for some
readers fine. I for one am not impressed by the author’s comparison or by your ignorance—“can leave the community and have the divorce decree respected. “

What can I say? Leave it to a white man to be ignorant with authority. You did give me a good laugh—thanks. Education
should be fun.

steve kay says:

No,Yechezkel, you have it wrong. YOU are the one who cannot marry a man and call it a marriage. Others CAN. Deal with it, buster!

oaklandj says:

I was saying you have options. In the Orthodox world, you don’t (but in the secular world, you certainly do). In the secular world, the author of this article doesn’t.
But what is clear is that you have a staggeringly large chip on your shoulder. If I had something that heavy there, I’d also find it difficult to move forward. Good luck to you.

MonseyJew says:

You mistake me calling you and the writer out as a bigoted misogynists as a chip–why do read a woman’s honesty like that–somebody needs to do some privilege checking. Agunas do not often live in the secular world—remember diversity? It means there are all different kinds of people. Pretty predictable, I point out your very male ignorance and you are unable to recognize that and feel some need to dismiss it as my “chip” a fault, or failing on my part—no no, not male arrogance and ignorance—never that. Again misogynistic and you are trivializing women. How exactly did your ignorance become my character flaw? Simple by way of your arrogance or your bigotry, no doubt. I wasn’t nicey nice. Get over yourself. As for the author six kinds of silly—but he wants sympathy, right? Okay, paper work is very important and very painful. Injustice, oppression at ever turn, state by state get the camera, white man has paperwork problems—just like an aguna, mirror image—the exact same. And I have nothing to wear to the new civil rights movement—oh heavens.

You say that religiously as well as secularly you were an agunah.

This does not make sense to me, religiously according to orthodoxy you were not married. And concerning reform and conservative, I’m sure if you could find a rabbi to marry you you could find a rabbi to divorce you.

Also you should know that in orthodoxy a woman can refuse a get and drag out the process.

I fell in love with my black Labrador Retriever, Kingdon. Rabbi Rebecca Alpert, a Reconstructionist Rabbi married us in a quiet ceremony in our backyard. While camping in Maine, I left the car door open and Kingdon ran out the door and disappeared with a Border Collie that had been frequenting the campsite. I have been an Aguna ever since. Rabbi Alpert has been of little help as she won’t write a get between me and Kingdon, as she is reluctant to I’ve a get without the other sides consent.
Can someone please help me?

Terrific article, Seth. It provides a nice, personal touch to a daunting and Byzantine legal (and religious) process. Sadly, many of the comments here are childish and unhelpful. As always, best of luck to you, and keep writing.


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A Chained Man

Thanks to the patchwork of laws about same-sex marriage, I got trapped in legal limbo when I wanted a divorce

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