In late 1973 after the Yom Kippur War, then-chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef received a query from the chief military chaplain, Brigadier General Mordechai Piron, regarding almost 1,000 cases of missing IDF soldiers who remained in the field, all of whom were married men.
Rabbi Yosef, who was just at the beginning of his term as chief rabbi but who had gained prominence as a respected posek (arbiter of halakha, Jewish law), took upon himself one of the most complicated halakhic assignments since the establishment of the state: he was appointed as president of the IDF’s Court for Agunot Affairs, which dealt in 1974 with issues relating to agunot – literally, “chained women,” because their husbands did not or could not give them a religious divorce, leaving the wives unable to remarry according to Jewish law.
In his vast halakhic treatise, Yabia Omer, Rabbi Yosef devoted long chapters to the matter of agunot, and to the halakhic principles whereby some 1,000 married women could remarry on the basis of various, partial testimonies that their husbands died.
Aginut, or the state of being an aguna, is a complex halakhic issue, which many halakhic arbiters avoid, primarily out of fear that they will mistakenly allow a woman whose husband is alive and one day will return home, to remarry.
In the preface to his Responsa, written in the month of Shvat 5734 (1974), Rabbi Yosef explained the importance of permitting agunot to remarry, and directed a little barb at rabbis who fled from this complex and critical halakhic issue: “I am aware of the way of some scholars in our generation, a way of light, of fleeing from every doubt in the world so that they will be able to present clear and decisive halakhic ruling to the point that it is incontrovertible; and indeed their way is good and honest in all other teachings, but when it comes to the aginut of a woman, I do not take the same approach, I only follow in the path of our early and late rabbis, who sought other sides and other sides of sides with all their might in order to be lenient in the matter of the aginut of a women.”
“Rabbi Yosef was called upon to deal with one of his greatest legal, dramatic and humanitarian issues, and by definition one of his toughest Israeli assignments,” journalist Adam Baruch wrote years later in his book “Seder Yom.” “The ultra-Orthodox posek functioned here like a modern lab (-) his halakhic work in the matter of the agunot was a humane example and a halakhic example; an undertaking that reverberated deeply in Israeli society as a whole.”
Now Rabbi Yosef is likely to be called on to handle a similar assignment. From his perspective, the case of the abducted soldiers focuses first of all on the possibility that Ehud Goldwasser’s wife, Karnit, will become an aguna.