The plight of the Agunah wife is an ongoing tragedy. Recently, a woman who has been an Agunah for 17 years went on a hunger strike in Jerusalem. An Agunah (literally a chained wife) is one whose husband deserts her and refuses to give her a GET, thus preventing her from remarrying. The leading Rabbis in every generation have tried to find solutions, even far-fetched ones, for the distress of Agunot.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger helped to release an Agunah with the explanation that, "The time is right to release a Jewish wife from being an Agunah, and Jewish women should not be Hefker (ownerless victims who are trapped and might be led to sin). Thus we are going to be lenient with an Agunah."
The Maharam of Rotenberg in his Responsa goes so far to rescue an Agunah by invoking the concept of “Mekach Taoot” ("a marriage under false pretenses"). Had the wife known that her husband was so cruel, she never would have married him in the first place.
Therefore the act of Kiddushin (marriage) is annulled "L'Mafrea" (retroactively) using the concept of Hefker Beis Din Hefker (what Beis Din declares null and void is null and void). The Maharam also explains, "Kol Hamekadesh al daatei d'Rabbanan Mekadesh" "Everyone who contracts a Jewish marriage does so with the consent and agreement of the Rabbis."
These great Rabbis of the past were no less G-d fearing than the Dayanim of today. They were also familiar with the warning of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 7) against hastiness in judgment, "A Dayan (Rabbinic judge) must always see himself as though the gates of hell are open beneath him". However, the Maharam and Rabbi Akiva Eiger in their awareness of their great responsibility were not afraid to seek solutions for complex questions about Agunot. Moreover, according to Kabbalah, releasing an Agunah brings the Final Redemption closer.
Today we also have the widespread syndrome of Jewish wives being Hefker by being held captive and denied a GET by their husbands. Solving their problem according to Halachah is one of the major Rabbinic challenges of today. Israeli law has authorized the Rabbinical Courts to send a husband, who denies a GET to his wife, to prison. However, there are Dayanim (Rabbinic Judges) who are opposed to such an enforcement, for fear of a Get Kofui – a divorce, granted under coercion, which is not considered valid. Consequently there are many cruel husbands who exploit this situation for prolonged abuse against their chained and captive wives.
This is a complicated and complex issue. On the one hand, a GET, imposed on the husband against his will, is invalid according to the Halacha. On the other hand, the Rambam rules concerning a husband who refuses to give his wife a GET, "He is beaten until he says, 'I agree' ". The Rambam says that such a GET is kosher and valid. This seeming contradiction is explained by the existence or lack thereof of a decree of Beis Din requiring the husband to divorce his wife. Most Halachic opinions agree that without such a prior Rabbinical Court decree, even mild persuasion might threaten the non-coerced requirement of the GET.
With such a Rabbinical Court decree, requiring the husband to divorce his wife, persuasion, coercion and even physical force are considered valid to bring the husband to want to comply with the decree of the Beis Din and give a GET of his own free will.
Today's Rabbanim are divided over the types of sanctions which, according to Halacha, can be imposed on husbands who deny their wives a GET. The unresolved nature of these differences of Rabbinical opinions has caused many wives to live as captive women to unscrupulous and cruel husbands who hold them in chains to blackmail them to receive a GET.
Many Rabbinical Judges seem to ignore the directive of the great Maharsha in the Talmud Bavli Yevamot who says, "To free an Agunah our Rabbis invoked many far reaching leniencies."
The Maharsha concludes that," G-d must grant courage to Rabbinical Judges so that trapped and captive suffering wives will be blessed with peace and domestic tranquility."
If only our current Rabbis had the moral courage and Torah wisdom of the Holy Maharsha!