Cattle prods, beatings, extortion, blackmail, revenge, and most of all money, are at the heart of the latest agunah-related scandal. Mendel Epstein, with his long white beard and saintly look, and a rosh yeshiva from Monsey, Martin Wolmark, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from desperate agunot—whose recalcitrant husbands threatened them with the loss of their children and eternal limbo. [Disclosure: I was in the film Unchained Women, so was he. I do not know him personally. I do know I was offered the option of breaking my ex’s knees for the get and turned it down.]
These supposedly halakhically correct but criminal characters were busted by the FBI last week for going after recalictrant husbands with cattle prods and more. After all, such a husband has total control over his wife’s future, because he has something she needs to set her free, and only he can give it to her. That’s where the road to extortion begins—and it ends with rabbis going to jail for aggravated assault while the husbands come out looking like victims. What’s wrong with this picture?
It doesn’t matter if Epstein and Wolmark were acting in cases of pikuach nefesh where the marriage was filled with domestic violence, or even child sexual abuse, because such a get is forced. And a woman who wants to remain in the community will play by the rules and will cave into extortion to be able to remain her children’s mom and remarry if she wants to—and later have children who won’t be considered mamzerim. (see side bar)
So in extreme fear and pain, faced with choiceless choices, some women, on the advice of folks like Epstein and Wolmark, hire thugs to beat a get out of a guy, breaking the law of the land (dina di malchutei dina)…. But divorce your husband in civil court, with a judgment that includes the giving of the get, and THAT IS considered a forced get—all in the name of preventing mamzerut, a child born out of wedlock whose descendants will be excluded from Jewish life for 10 generations.
Unfortunately, there are already plenty of mamzerim of another sort deeply entrenched in our community. These mamzerim are those vengeful recalcitrant husbands—and their so-called “rabbis”—who ruin the lives of their wives, her parents, their own children and, in the end, shame Judaism. They force their wives to suffer while many of them find new wives and marry them via the bought-and-paid for fiction known as Heter Meah Rabanim.
What will it take to fix this unbearably criminal situation? Maybe we can get the U.S. Justice Department to apply RICO statutes to those who conspire to extort real estate and financial benefits, like money and stocks, IRAs and 401Ks, in exchange for a get.
Certainly it is not by turning your “wife” into a “concubine”—as some well-meaning but clueless fellows suggest. (That is so demeaning.) There is the option of following dina de malchutei dina, but many rabbis in the get business are afraid of losing their “authority” in the communities they control. So they will not cede to civil law.
The exception that makes the rule is the Modern Orthodox community, many of whose leaders are in the forefront of the attempts to unchain these people (there are some men among the victims—when their wives refuse to accept a get). Mostly, these people create awareness in the community where everyone agrees that justice must be pursued. Yet, except for pre-nuptial agreements enforceable by dina de malchutei dina—which concern giving the get and paying fines if you don’t— and publicly shaming the men, nothing has really changed for the agunot. There is a world of difference between prevention and cure. Most agunot did not sign prenups, since those are relatively new, and in some communities they are forbidden or forgotten, and then it’s too late to do much.
In terms of freeing actual agunot, there has been much talk; but little rabbinic action. Even the few good rabbis in the community who absolutely see a halakhic path to the solution are loathe to follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman, whose Beit Din freed women with mekach taut—legitimate annulments. He was excoriated by Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik who believed it was better for a woman to stay with a horrible man than be alone. (This was in the 70’s at the height of the feminist movement.)
At the JOFA Conference, one option offered was fairly simple. Take three legitimate Modern Orthodox rabbis who are well-respected—accepted as leaders and poseks in their communities—and who have the guts to start a Beis Din here in the U.S. and another three such rabbis to do so in Israel. Then have them follow the methods of Rackman’s Beis Din, or create their own halakhic process. There is a halakhic way, as many panelists at the JOFA conference said, and they can follow one of those paths to unchain these women, if they have the a will to do it. They will need balabatim to support them.
With the help of such decent, God-fearing and humane rabbis and their supporters, divorcees can be welcomed with open arms in their communities. Who knows? Maybe they will be introduced to unmarried men who accept the decisions of the new Beis Din—whose rabbis will marry them to divorced women they respect and love, and we can all live happily ever after.
But it is now about 40 years since the Silver Get Law was written by Shelley Silver and Reb Moishe Feinstein z”tl in New York State (and bitterly contested by Agudath Israel), and nothing much has changed. Agunah advocates are told, 40 years later after we started this campaign to free these women ( I was an agunah for 7 years), that we are supposed to remain patient. Rivkah Haut, a pioneer in the movement, had plenty to say about that at the JOFA Agunah conference last summer. Forty years? That’s as long as Yetziat Mitzraim. When do the agunot see their yetziah? Forty Years? Heegeya Zman. The time has come. Dayenu.
Prof. Elie Wiesel once said to me, “Jeanette, be your own leader.” But I disagree. No one can free these women by themselves. It takes a shtetl like Bergen County to make it happen.
By Jeanette Friedman