Unchaining the Agunah – A Chanukah miracle


And the angel of God said: your name will no longer be called Jacob; it will be called Israel for you have fought with God and succeeded. These words were articulated in last week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayishlach. In this week’s portion, Vayeshev Yaakov – and Jacob dwelt – Jacob realizes that to be called Israel is vastly different than being referred to only as Jacob. To be Israel requires confronting animus and bullying, and with this comes the realization that you can never sit back and put your feet up. You can never expect the world to allow you the comforts afforded to everyone else. To be Israel means that you must constantly remain vigilant against those bullies who mistreat you.  In the 21st century we must contend with a variety of bullies.

Bully #1 – The Islamic radical extremists better known as ISIS have taken bullying to a level never seen before. Their intimidation is secondary only to their ghastly and inhumane violence. They control the masses and force their acceptance of a most radical and conservative form of Islam. They kidnap, rape, and forcefully convert people of other faiths with impunity, thus solidifying total allegiance by their constituents.

Bully #2 – Those who hide behind the daggers of the subservient. The radical Imam that asks his disciples to kill and maim while he shields his family from death. He who preaches allegiance to Allah and asks others to give up their future while knowing his life and the lives of his heirs will be spared.

Bully #3 – Those who use intimidation and fear mongering to cast Israel in a negative light. Entertainers who discourage others from performing in Israel. Academics that aim to prevent visits from Israeli academics or accept invitations from Israeli universities.  Professors that grade students based on political bias and excoriate students who try to defend and legitimize Israel.

Bully #4 – Governments and governmental agencies that promote the BDS movement. The European Union that arbitrarily chooses to inflame the Arab Israeli conflict.  They ignore labeling of products made in all other disputed regions while singling out products made in Judea and Samaria.

Bully #5 – Those in positions of authority who try to minimize dissension by demonizing and ostracizing their opponents.  Although I may disagree with those that see climate change as their number one priority, I find their denigration of those who oppose them as far more problematic. Civility should always trump personal position.

Bully #6 – Those who use their position of authority to molest children left in their care. Pedophiles come in all colors and religions with many hiding behind their religion. This form of bullying often has lifelong ramifications for the victims including suicidal tendencies as well as difficulties developing relationships.

Bully #7 – Organized religion that seeks to manipulate its adherents into submission by creating a structure of collective punishment. Failure to accept the ruling of the selected leaders may lead to condemnation of entire families as heretics, thus triggering financial and communal isolation. This can include shunning a family for marriage and forced removal of their children from the community school. This may even include the targeting of friends, acquaintances and neighbors thus leading to total subjugation. The punished often have no direct association with the other individuals or groups, nor do they have control over their actions.

Bully #8 – Rabbinic organizations that seek to control how even the most religious behave. These bodies demand total obedience in all areas of life including dress, schooling, marriage, occupation and even voting.  Converts and those studying are told to suppress their personal opinions and comply totally with the rabbinical authorities. If they don’t obey, they may suffer the consequence of having their conversion annulled.  (Obviously this is against Jewish law, but the poor convert has no advocate and is in no position to argue.)

Bullying is not a new phenomenon and it causes immeasurable suffering. Entire ethnic and religious communities have been eradicated as a result of fear of raising the ire of those in control.
In this week’s Torah portion we see firsthand how the brothers of Joseph controlled their nemesis. Unable to subjugate him or control his thoughts, their bullying leads to an unconscionable degree of dysfunctionality. They even contemplate his murder before deciding on selling him to the highest bidder. Sadly, the lessons of our past seem to have had little impact on the behavior of bullies today.

But I am optimistic that miracles can occur. We haven’t even lit the first Hanukkah candle but a miracle has already taken place. An amazingly uplifting ruling issued by a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi has the potential to unchain women known as agunot. It may finally create the political will to free women who have been bullied by husbands refusing to grant their wives a religious divorce. With the approval of leading rabbinic authorities in the United States, Rabbi Nota Greenblatt of Memphis officiated at the marriage of Tamar Epstein, a woman who was previously married but whose husband refused to grant her a get – religious divorce. Permission to marry was based on the Talmudic dictum stating that a mekach taot – a transaction based on a false premise is invalid thus legally annulling her previous marriage. The rabbi ruled that the original marriage was never valid because had she known that her first husband was mentally unstable she never would have married him.

Amazing? Absolutely. But wait… Rabbi Shternbuch, a leading rabbi of the Edah Hachareidit, an ultra-orthodox rabbinical body in Israel stated that the American ruling is a disgrace. He says that Tamar’s children will be in legal limbo and deems them to be momzerim or legally ostracized as bastards. Even if the rabbi’s ruling is legally correct, it would undermine the sanctity of marriage and is thus unacceptable. In other words, even if Tamar’s life would be ruined, the Edah Hachareidit’s personal preference is to allow the destruction of an individual to suit the greater good. I guess the Edah Hachareidit follows the lessons of Joseph’s brothers, believing that Joseph’s demise was a worthwhile consequence in the brothers’ quest for superiority.

Yes, bullying still exists but we no longer confront it as Jacob; we have learned to see pride in our name being Israel. Well aware that the eventual showdown will present the forces of good against the forces of evil, we stand resolute to defend that which is correct. Each night when we light the menorah we join forces in helping emasculate those who use their proverbial masculinity to oppress and demoralize human beings who are powerless to confront them. The Chanukah story tells not only of the miracle of the oil burning but more importantly how the few were able to overcome the many and how the weak were victorious over the strong. It tells not only of the fight against external enemies, but more importantly it teaches us to confront the enemy within. It reminds the Jew to reclaim the temple not only from those who sought to taint it with impurity, but more so from those who tried to restrict purity to only members of their sect. The Talmud teaches that the mitzvah of Chanukah is to light one candle for each and every person. Every Jew is significant and has the right to publicly proclaim: no longer will I accept intimidation and be called Jacob; my name is now Israel.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,
Rabbi Jack Engel

PS: Often the sequence of Hebrew letters display a miraculous foresight.
To protect or shield in Hebrew is Magen and spelled MEM, GIMEL, NUN
To leave unprotected or chained is Agen (as in Agunah) and spelled AYIN, GIMEL, NUN
The letters separating the MEM and AYIN are a NUN and SAMECH
Perhaps for the Magen to best connect with the Agen is by removing the NUN and SAMECH. The two letters that spell NES (miracle).


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