In Jewish law, or Halachah, marriage is treated as a contractual relationship between husband and wife. In order for the dissolution of marriage to be valid and complete under Jewish law, the husband must present his wife with a get, a document of divorce. Without the get, the divorce is not recognized by Jewish rabbinical courts. If the wife remarries without the get, she is guilty of adultery and any child she has is considered illegitimate, a mamzer, who is subsequently prohibited from marrying within the Jewish community. Dissolution is complete and permanent; once the couple is divorced, they may not remarry each other.
Torah requires that the husband willingly present his wife with the get; the woman is at the mercy of her husband to deliver the get. It is not uncommon for the husband to refuse to give his wife a get, rendering her an agunah, or “chained wife”, who cannot remarry within the Jewish community. A wife may also refuse to accept the get and free her husband to remarry, though he suffers a lesser penalty than she: if he remarries, he is guilty of polygamy, rather than of adultery and his children are not illegitimate. Certain loopholes provide, in extreme circumstances, that a man may be freed from his marriage without the get.
Recognizing the one-sided nature of Jewish divorce laws, rabbinical courts throughout the centuries have attempted to, if not balance the scales exactly, prevent abuse by either party. The result is more to render each party vulnerable to “blackmail” by the other. In 1993, the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic authority of the Orthodox Union endorsed the use of prenuptial agreements designed to bring both parties before the rabbinical courts for arbitration, imposing penalties for delay, and to ensure that the divorce is completed in accordance with Jewish law.
Sources: Jewish Law http://www.jlaw.com/
Jewish Bulletin of Northern California http://www.jewishsf.com/
Articles on Judaism, Domestic Abuse, & the Agunah Problem http://members.aol.com/agunah/articles.htm