The Safed Rabbinical Court recently gave a woman a "get zikui" to permit her to receive a divorce from her husband who has been in a coma for seven years. See this article. The article describes it as "rare." What exactly is a get zikui and are there any recorded instances of it being used recently?
Rabbi Isaac Herczog discussed the concept, and rejected it. (Rabbi Hershel Schachter has discussed this in several lectures.)
"Zikui" works as follows. I want to gift someone a nice challah knife on shabbos, but it's best to avoid gifts on shabbos as it looks like a business transaction, so on Friday afternoon I say, "I'm sure Shmerel would want to receive this lovely challah knife, so I'll have my friend here pick it up on his behalf." Receiving on someone's behalf, when we assume they would like to receive it, is zikui. Another example would be if I set aside food in my apartment building for anyone in the building to use on shabbos -- this makes an eruv and allows everyone to carry. If I can't contact Shmerel in advance, I can generally assume "he'd like to be able to carry", and thus have him receive a share in this food.
The argument used here was: "he would want his wife to be free if she was chained to a vegetable for six years." (Or a similar argument, "he disappeared off at war; if he's still alive in some Hezbullah prison three years later, he would want his wife to be free now.") Herczog correctly predicted that if we allowed it for the husband who's disappeared, some rabbi would try this stunt for the husband who is right here and refusing to give his wife a Get, arguing that he'd really rather give one. (And as Rabbi Schachter tells it, sure enough, some "rabbi" started doing such Gittin in Israel -- he's unauthorized by the Israeli rabbinate and therefore could be arrested for this, so he does them at the US Embassy.)
As Rabbi Schachter explained, the fundamental problem with zikui is that it only works (at least in all the Talmudic precedents) in a passive way, to receive something. Giving a Get requires some very deliberate action.
The story of the vegetative husband (or similarly, one stricken with a severe psychological or neurological problem to the point he can't execute a Get) is truly tragic, but the halachic logic here seems shaky at best.
Rabbi JD Bleich addressed this long ago in Tradition 35:4.
Similarly, in cases of zakhin le-adam, the self-appointed agent need per- form only the physical act of kinyan; the requisite mental act is supplied by the person conveying title. In contradistinction, divesture of title always requires daat or intent on the part of the person transfering title. Accordingly, it has been argued that zekhiyyah, since it involves a self-designated agent, is available for physical acts but is not operative with regard to any act that requires a determinant mental state, e.g., conveyance of property or the granting of a get. ...
In none of those sources is there the slightest hint that signification of assent on the part of the husband may be dispensed with, much less so is there any intimation that a get can be executed in face of the husband's recalcitrance. Small wonder then that no recognized rabbinic authority has endorsed the expedient of get zikkuy as a remedy for the problem of the recalcitrant husband and not a few authorities have vociferously denounced such action as a charade that can only lead to increased instances of mamzerut.
The issue with a gett me'usah isn't that the gett is compelled, but that the husband did not have a desire to give the gett. Which is why the Rambam says that we can assume the husband had a desire to conform to halakhah if he wants to be part of the Jewish community. It's just that there are other, dominant, desires that outweigh this one, and those desires are motivating his decision. Beis din can't act on unexpressed desires, so we compel him until he says "rotzeh ani" (I want); then it has something actionable to work with. In other words, "rotzeh" (and "want") are ambiguous -- it could refer to a single desire or an overall decision. A gett only requires the former.
(If someone other than the court does the compulsion, the expressed desire isn't sufficietly related to the gett to be considered an overwhelmed but actual desire to give the gett.)
As for gett zikui... There is currently a debate on its viability in the YU world. R Simcha Krausz and R' Yosef Blau (YU's head mashgiach) have formed a beis din that would free agunos largely using gett zikui. It would seem that R' Herchel Schachter and R' M Willing would both be against, although they haven't spoken up about this particular court.
August 2015: Well, R' Schachter just did. See http://www.torahweb.org/torah/docs/ibd-machaa.html, signed by Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz (of the RCA's Beis Din of America and of the Chicago Rabbinical Council [a/k/a the cRc]), Rav Nota Greenblatt (of the Yeshiva Gedolah of Memphis), Rav Avrohom Union (of the Rabbinical Council of California beis din; active in Nefesh, a group for Orthodox mental health professionals and in child safety), and Rav Menachem Mendel Senderovitz (I don't know who he is).