As I think about the issue of agunot and related matters that the Orthodox seem to have such a hard time grappling with, I realize like Freud says that most problems are overdetermined not to mention unconscious.
Meaning, the flaws in the system have nothing to do with the Torah and everything to do with the way some frum traditions have unknowingly distorted it, thinking they're doing the right thing.
These voices are strong because most Jews have walked away from observance, leaving it to the extremists to define what's in and out of the bounds.
Here are the characteristics of extremism that are troubling. All of them relate to one another.
Most important is a hyper obsessive detail focus - Looking at halacha as being about categorizing and sorting things and people into right behavior and wrong behavior. Talmudic knowledge, memorization and debate over the fine points precludes energy and emphasis on the big picture.
While this is great for people who enjoy learning the finer points of bugs on broccoli, this is a turnoff to people who think completely differently -- philosophically, emotionally, holistically, taking the big picture into account. Is all of this nitpicking really necessary? I mean do we really think the Jews coming out of Egypt were checking broccoli for bugs?
On the flipside of this almost OCD like approach to observance there is the inability to integrate ideas and practice. Looking at mitzvos the way a diamond dealer views a diamond, with their head in a microscope, picking apart the details, is good for grading the diamond but bad for understanding the principles of what makes one.
Related to the detail focus and inability to integrate is a deep suspicion of those who seek to provide a deeper meaning to the mitzva. Purveyors of Kabbalistic and Chasidic philosophy are viewed suspiciously, as cultish.
Generally, emotions are viewed as suspect. There is only dry logic, only this hyper-rational but illogical approach to life.
Which leads to a further problem. Beyond the literalism and the hyper macro obsessive focus is a tendency to dehumanize people by labeling them. And then, just like you throw out a rotten apple, you throw out the ones who are deemed "not kosher" and so a bad influence.
You throw out feminists because they don't conform to the Torah's images of a good wife (remember that Mishpatim had us selling our daughters as slaves and had Jewish slaveowners knocking out the eyes of their Jewish slaves and keeping them...so these images really need updating for the times.)
Or forget feminists...you throw out any woman (girl) who isn't thin and pretty and highly made up and a knockout with tons of money. Why? Because that's what guys want. And if you don't believe me look at the yeshiva forums. I do not believe the rabbis are sitting in yeshiva teaching young men about what a real Aishes Chayil is - because relationship stuff is covered in a very limited way in halacha, it's about rights and duties.
We used to have parents who actually told their kids what to do in very serious terms but their authority has been displaced by these so-called religious authorities who went to Israel for a few years and now everything they say is chapter and verse.
...continuing on, you throw out nonwhite Jews (although you pretend not to, it's okay if "there are just a few of them") because they don't conform to the Ashkenazic stereotype of a pale White guy starved half to death leaning over a Torah half the day and getting beaten up by a Russian peasant on the way home.
Again, time to update the thinking since there are millions of Jews (tens of millions actually) from Africa and elsewhere who are actually part of our people. We need to acknowledge and incorporate diversity, but we can't even get a handle on whether it's okay to put a disposable Tupperware in the office microwave.
In fact the modern ultra-Orthodox have a lot of trouble handling just about everything. When I was growing up things were much much different. There was a common definition of "normal" that went unsaid 99% of the time. We ate tunafish at the diner, but we didn't eat pizza at the pizza place. Normal! We walked to shul on Shabbos, but we didn't have a mechitza up at the Bat Mitzva. Normal! And so on.
Today we do not have great Torah sages to tell us to get over ourselves. Here is what I would like to see.
Understand that the literal nitpicky narrow observance of the law is NOT THE POINT.
Understand that the goal is to engage with the halacha so that it is a WAY OF LIFE. That means it's on the learned ones, the rabbis, to do what they can to MAKE IT LIVABLE and not just livable, A JOY. Just the opposite of being machmir (strict) about everything, look for leniencies within what is generally accepted as the law today.
And then go a step beyond to ACTION HALACHA. That means that if the current understanding of halacha is allowing an untenable situation to persist - YOU HAVE TO LOOK FOR WAYS TO APPLY THE PRINCIPLES OF HALACHA DIFFERENTLY. For example it used to be "snitching" to report child sexual abusers to the police. Yes! Can you believe that! But it's true. Now it would be horrifying if any Orthodox person said such a thing.
Similarly there are many young people who date in their twenties but aren't married yet. They are sleeping together. The halacha needs to pull its head out of its ass and find a designation for these couples. Maybe they are considered married. They should probably get a kind of divorce when they break up. Either way just telling them to "keep negiah" isn't dealing with it.
Also something is very wrong with the system when so many people are unmarried and yet they have to submit "shidduch resumes" and get genetic testing and get reference checks up the wazoo and on and on. Listen people we have to procreate, things change over time, and the focus should be on helping Jewish families learn basic values and earn a living and be part of a thriving community.
There is way too much obsession with Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and all the other denominations. It's almost like the one has cooties from the other. Just say, "halachic vs. non halachic" and be done with it. It's okay to admit you're not following the halacha at the moment. That is part of the problem, everybody has to be right and not only right, superior.
Here is another example, when a woman gets married and her husband knocks the hell out of her, that marriage should be annulled immediately. The woman needs protecting and a financial settlement from the man. And the same goes when it's a woman doing the hitting!
Other examples. When a rabbi takes young men into a sauna and stares at their private parts over a period of decades, he should be fired instead of provoking shul debates and continuing to write Torah opinions for a mainstream university.
What else. When a family kicks out their child because he or she is not religious enough, the community should have the brains to turn the local yeshiva into a dormitory for at-risk youth. Certainly it should not be the yeshiva itself that is kicking kids out because their sleeves are too short or they read secular books.
ACTION HALACHA. When it comes to putting on light switches on Shabbos, now there's technology that lets lets you do so in a manner that's halachically feasible. Instead of downplaying and discouraging it, SHOW PEOPLE HOW.
Covering your hair. It's a nice thing to do when you get married, but let's be honest the thing with shaving your head and wearing a shaitel and then a cloth over it is insanity and the rabbis should say so!
The bottom line is that if you are Jewish then Jewish law belongs to you. Even if you aren't the most learned or observant person in the world get involved and speak up. If you don't do it then who will?
-- There is a lot more to say on this subject. --