The get addresses remarriage under Jewish religious law

Men are also prohibited from remarrying without a get, but that prohibition is rabbinical in nature; the offspring of a man who remarried without a get are not mamzerim and loopholes exist that, in extreme circumstances, may free a man from his marriage.

Since the Torah requires the husband to willingly give the get, women who want a divorce remain vulnerable to their husbands' wishes about when, if at all, they will receive it. While most divorcing couples resolve their disputes amicably (or at least short of withholding a get), some men delay issuance of the get as a blackmail of sorts, often in exchange for money or child custody.

In some instances, husbands simply refuse to believe that their marriage cannot be saved.

The problem dates back to biblical times, when the term "agunot" more commonly referred to women whose husbands had gone to war and not returned, so it was not known whether they were alive or dead. In modern times, the term refers almost exclusively to women chained willfully by their husbands.

Women have stranded men, too.

While Rabbeinu Gershom intended his 10th-century decree prohibiting a man from divorcing his wife against her will to protect women from their husbands' whims, some women have abused the ruling, trading acceptance of the get for money or custody.

Previous communal leaders have attempted to eradicate the problem. The notion of conditional marriage was debated in the late 19th century but rejected on grounds that it would undermine the husband-wife relationship.

New York state's get statute requires the husband to remove all barriers that would prevent the wife from remarrying before the state issues a divorce: A 1992 amendment enabled the court, when determining property distribution, to consider the husband's refusal to issue a get.

Doubters have argued that the amendment constitutes a forced get, making it invalid. And community sanctions against the recalcitrant individual, such as barring him from synagogues, carry limited weight.

The Conservative movement today relies on the clause added to the ketubah in 1954 by Professor Saul Lieberman of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in which the husband and wife agree that a beit din, or religious court, will arbitrate in case of a divorce.

The Orthodox rabbinate disputed this clause's validity not in principle but in application, arguing that the unspecified fine levied against the husband, should he refuse to obey the beit din's ruling, was halachically unacceptable.

Additionally, the Orthodox felt civil courts would not enforce the clause because of the ketubah's religious nature. The Reform movement does not have a national standard on whether a get is required, leaving the issue to the discretion of individual congregational rabbis, according to Rabbi Alan Bregman, director of the Midwest region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The prenuptial agreement endorsed in 1993 by the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic authority of the Orthodox Union, attempts to avoid these earlier points of contention. Written by Rabbi Mordechai Willig of Yeshiva University, it contains two separate documents, each of which may be used without the other; both are endorsed.

The first states that the husband and wife agree on a specific beit din to arbitrate in case of a divorce. Its goal is to "minimize the likelihood of either spouse unfairly exploiting the terms of the prenuptial, or putting up…procedural roadblocks," writes Rabbi Basil Herring, rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach, N.Y., in "The Prenuptial Agreement: Halachic and Pastoral Considerations" (Jason Aronson, 1996).

The second document binds the husband, if he and his wife separate, to pay her a daily fee until he initiates contact with the beit din to set the divorce into motion, or until he answers the beit din's summons. The fee, which varies according to the groom's living standards and is agreed upon before the document is signed, helps ensure the husband will not delay divorce proceedings, since the fees will quickly accumulate. If the wife refuses to come before the beit din, his obligation ends.

The prenuptial agreement is legally enforceable in a civil court like any other legal contract, explains Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of the RCA's Bet Din of America and of the Chicago Rabbinical Council's beit din. "It's similar to a contractor who signs a contract — if you're not performing your duties, pay up."

Just as in the case of a recalcitrant husband, if the wife refuses to accept the beit din's ruling or even appear before it, she becomes a "persona non grata; we shun her and ostracize her," Schwartz explains.

While the prenuptial agreement cannot guarantee that a party who wants a divorce will get one — a husband who chooses to accumulate heavy fees has that option — it does help prevent the horror stories of recalcitrant husbands destroying their wives' lives.