Among Orthodox Jews, they are known as "agunot" -- "chained women" stuck in a theological nether world in which they have been secularly divorced by their husbands but are not religiously free to remarry.
Yesterday, rabbis called on the House Judiciary Committee of the General Assembly for help doing what 5,000 years of Jewish law is unable to do -- free the agunot.
According to Baltimore Democratic Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, sponsor of a bill that seeks to remedy the situation, the debate yesterday "was the most fascinating and engaging committee hearing I've been involved with in 15 years."
It isn't every day that a politician asks a rabbi why he can't simply change the laws of Moses and be done with it, which basically is what Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. asked Herman Neuberger, president of Baltimore's Ner Israel Rabbinical College.
The rabbi let it slide, continuing to emphasize that the bill is not intended to drag the state into religion.
The legislation addresses "religious" principles without naming any faith. It would make it necessary for anyone who had been married in a religious ceremony -- and was seeking divorce in a Maryland court -- to submit a sworn statement saying that they had removed all barriers preventing their spouse from remarrying. A similar law has been on the books in New York state since 1983.
For observant Jews, the problem stems from the book of Deuteronomy, in which a man may take as many wives as he desires while a woman may have only one husband. The Bible also states that a man may divorce his wife but a woman may not divorce her husband.
This was modified by 10th-century sage Rabbainu Gershom, who limited men to a single wife and said divorce must be granted by mutual consent. This did not negate biblical law, according to scholars, only fine-tuned it. In those days, rabbis had the authority to enforce laws in Jewish society.
That's not the case in the United States, and there exist scores of Orthodox women (their number in Maryland is not known) whose husbands have divorced them in civil court but refuse to submit to a divorce sanctioned by their faith.
"Spite," Neuberger said. Withholding a religious divorce, he said, is often a way of leveraging an ex-spouse to get out of paying high alimony or child support. One especially stubborn man in Israel -- where rabbis do exercise the force of civil law -- died in prison not long ago after spending about 20 years behind bars rather than grant a divorce.
Answering committee questions about possible violations of separation of church and state, Neuberger said: "Divorce court is a court of equity, and this bill creates equity between the parties involved. If a marriage was religiously commenced, it should end the same way."
Neuberger said he spoke to Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler about the measure Tuesday night and was told that the church had questions about the wording of the bill.
Dick Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, told the committee that the church -- which grants annulment of marriage -- would have ecclesiastical lawyers study the measure and suggest amendments. "A way will be found to satisfy the rabbis' intent without disserving our own," said Dowling, acknowledging that the fine points of the theology involved were somewhat beyond his ken.
Pub Date: 2/20/97