Today is the Fast of Esther, commemorating Queen Esther’s call to her fellow Jews to fast on her behalf as she prepares to risk her life to save theirs. It is also International Chained Woman Day referring to those Jewish women (agunot) who are chained to husbands who either refuse to give them a divorce or who are missing (in battle or otherwise) but cannot be proven dead, and who are therefore married to the missing for the rest of their lives. (Women have no right to divorce in Judaism but do have the right to refuse a divorce their husbands may desire, so that men, too, can be chained.)
Many Orthodox rabbis work with women’s groups to find a way out of this nonsense, but estimates put the number of chained of women in the thousands.
Does this sound right to you? Does it make any sense to maintain a Bronze Age marriage bond that enslaves spouses to one another? Isn’t this just the kind of madness with which people who worry about Sharia are concerned?
Here in Tennessee I have spoken with many Jews who are worried about Sharia (Islamic law), and unconcerned about halacha (Jewish law). Why? Either because they believe halacha comes from God, or they have abandoned halachic observance, and choose to live their lives as modern rather than Bronze Age Jews.
Why do modern men and women voluntarily bind themselves to halacha and Sharia? The answer is that they believe this is what God wants of them. But this only begs the question: why believe in a god who demands this of you?
The answer to the craziness of religious laws isn’t legalized oppression of religious expression, but free men and women walking away from such craziness. As long as we in the United States maintain a country that protects both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, we don’t have to worry about either halacha or Sharia forcing us to live in ways most of us find repugnant. But this requires a knowledge of and support for the First Amendment that more and more Americans seem to be abandoning. The danger isn’t Muslim or Jewish orthodoxies, or even Christian fundamentalists who find freedom of religion a stumbling block to their version of a God fearing America. The danger is that we liberals will be out-maneuvered and lose the very rights that make the United States the exceptional experiment it is.