Police State Judaism 101: What is a mamzer and what is an aguna?

A 'mamzer' is a child born to a woman unlucky enough to be caught in the misogyny of Orthodox religious law. This is how it works:

If you're a woman who wishes to divorce her husband under Jewish law, you'd better hope your husband is on board.

That's because *only* the husband can initiate divorce. A woman only has the power to 'accept' a divorce, not to initiate it.

If the husband refuses to initiate divorce, the woman becomes known as an 'aguna' - a chained woman.

This means she cannot remarry under Orthodox law.

It also means that if she has children with a man other than her recalcitrant husband, those children will have the status of 'mamzer'.

A mamzer is excluded from much of Jewish ritual life. A mamzer cannot marry a non-mamzer under Orthodox law.

And a mamzer's status is carried on down the generations in perpetuity. That means that every child, grandchild, great grandchild and so on will also be a mamzer.

Of course, no such penalty applies to the children of a recalcitrant husband if he hooks up with a new woman. He is free to procreate and his children will not suffer any religious status consequences.

The implications here are horrific.

A Jewish divorce is known as a 'gett'. Gett refusal is often used as a tool of emotional abuse, as a bargaining chip to bilk women out of child support, or even out of custody of the children altogether.

This would all be bad enough, but the horrific situation is further exacerbated by the fact that in Israel, the only way to get married is via the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, and that rabbinate is now creating a registry of who is a Jew, who is an aguna, and who is a mamzer.

To have such a misogynistic law backed by state coercive powers that are frequently the subject of accusations of corruption and gross negligence, should terrify every Jewish woman considering an Orthodox marriage into taking steps to protect herself.

Don't rely on the rabbis here to help you, either.

The only Australian Orthodox rabbi I know of who is actually serious about creating Orthodox wedding contracts (ketubot) that protect women, is my husband, Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb.

Sure, many rabbis will murmur sympathetic things about agunot, but they never actually do anything beyond offer a completely worthless 'prenup' that is unenforceable in Australia.

The only other group taking the issue of gett refusal seriously in Australia is a committee of women calling themselves, Unchain my Heart. They're doing some interesting work, but are overly concerned with playing nice with misogynist rabbis and are unlikely to effect any structural change in the religion. They have had some success in secular courts, however, and have submitted to government on the issue. It's a space to watch.

Here at Galus, we have expertise in reputation management as well as religious law. And we offer, pro bono, consultancy to women who find themselves at the sharp end of gett refusal. If you would like to discuss strategies around how to apply pressure to a recalcitrant husband (or recalcitrant rabbis), write to us using the form below.

We keep all correspondence completely confidential, and are happy to talk the issue through with zero obligation on you to take any action. At all times, your preferences and well being are our only priority.

Please enter your name.
Please enter a message.


  1. […] But here’s the kicker: who will have access to this database that has the power to declare you a mamzer? […]

  2. […] thuggery extends to vilifying an aguna (chained […]

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.