The get should come up in premarital counseling in order to stave off problems of agunah down the ro

For most Americans, the words "prenuptial agreement" evoke images of couples determining who will get the Spode china should they divorce. But for many in the Jewish community, prenuptial agreements are a way to avoid the problem of agunah, literally a "chained woman'' who is not free to remarry.

Traditionally, Judaism discourages divorce but has always permitted it. Once a marriage is over, halachah requires a man to give his wife a get, a document that sets her free. In the pre-modern era, when Jews were subject to the jurisdiction of the local community, recalcitrant husbands could be forced to grant their wives a divorce. Rabbis in the Jewish courts could order that a man be treated as a stranger in his community, that he be imprisoned or even flogged in order to persuade him to grant his wife a get.

But today, things are different. Jewish courts have less power and there is little a community can do to force an abusive or deserting husband to set his wife free.

In the past, most agunot were women whose husbands had disappeared. Today, they are usually women whose husbands are around but refuse to grant a Jewish divorce for a variety of reasons, thus trapping their wives in a sort of purgatory between marriage and divorce.

There are numerous reports of greedy husbands who demand huge sums of money in return for the get, even though such behavior defies Jewish law. Moreover, the problem seems to be worst here in the United States because the separation of church and state means that no central authority has jurisdiction over rabbinical courts; thus the civil authorities often cannot compel a husband to grant a get. Agunot Inc., a 12-year-old group created by women who could not get divorces, estimates that today, more than 1,000 women in this country are considered agunot.

Both the Orthodox and Conservative movements have made efforts to change this situation before it begins. (The Reform movement is not bound by halachah and accepts civil divorces.) In June 1993, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America approved the use of a prenuptial agreement designed to stem the increasing number of agunot. The agreement, which is halachically binding and is a separate document from the ketubah (marriage contract), has both parties agree that, in the event of a separation, they will go to a religious court and abide by its ruling. If the man refuses to go, he is required to pay a substantial sum (usually $500) each day that he is in contempt.

In 2000, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 11 roshei yeshiva, or senior professors of Talmud at the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University, signed a statement urging greater use of premarriage contracts. Yet, according to writings on by the Orthodox Caucus, by 1999 fewer than a third of the RCA membership was using the contract.

The Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in the 1950s accepted the Lieberman clause, an addition to the ketubah that was written by the late Rabbi Saul Lieberman. Those who sign a ketubah with such a clause agree to appear before the beit din (rabbinic court) of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the CRA and to obey the dictates of the court that both can live full lives.

The Lieberman clause is widely used, but there are some problems with it — including the fact that many state supreme courts will not accept it on the grounds that it violates the separation between church and state. Also, a few husbands have claimed that since the clause was in the ketubah, they didn't know it was there and are therefore not bound by it. As a result, a letter of intent was created, which is signed by both husband and wife. In the letter, which is separate from the ketubah, the couple testifies that they have met with a rabbi who explained the Lieberman clause to them and that they are obligated to go before the beit din. Still, the chances are good that a civil court will throw out the letter of intent.

The reasons for the non-universal use of prenuptial agreements vary. Many rabbis have said that it is unpleasant, and even extortion, to discuss divorce in the midst of premarital counseling. But, of course, all Jewish weddings require a ketubah, and the rabbis are required to explain the document to an engaged couple. The Jewish marriage contract is a legal agreement that provides for the wife in case of divorce or widowhood. In fact, over the centuries, numerous rabbis have maintained that the ketubah is a deterrent to divorce because it constantly reminds the husband of the large financial obligations he would owe his wife should they divorce.

Some couples also do not want to sign such an agreement because they fear it will make them look unsure of their commitment. However, as Rabbi Saul Berman of the Orthodox Caucus pointed out, if more couples signed the agreements, there would be no stigma, which means the growing problem of agunah could come to an end.