Last month, an FBI sting operation netted a rabbi, the head of a New York yeshiva and eight other men, two of whom were volunteers at an organization for at-risk Jewish youth. Rabbi Mendel Epstein made his living campaigning at the rabbinical courts on behalf of women whose husbands refused to grant them religious divorces; this past summer, he wrote and released a “Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife.” But he and his coterie seem to have taken his advocacy too far—specifically, they’ve been accused of exacting up to $60,000 from despairing wives in exchange for kidnapping and torturing their husbands, with the aim of coercing the men into signing the Jewish divorce document. The 10 defendants were initially denied bail after appearing in Federal District Court in Trenton, New Jersey (bail was later set for the men, all of whom pleaded not guilty). They’ve been called unlikely criminals. They have also, albeit less frequently, been called unlikely feminists.
The unsealed federal charges conjure up unsettling images. A rabbi and his assistants wielding a cattle prod. Or congregating in a New Jersey warehouse with masks, ropes and scalpels to finalize their plan to kidnap the fictional husband of an FBI agent posing as an Orthodox Jewish woman. Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Martin Wolmark of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah allegedly convened their own rabbinical court, or beit din, and issued an edict authorizing the use of violence in this case, for which they supposedly charged the undercover agent $10,000. According to officials, they then asked for an additional $50,000 to carry out the abduction. The sum may be a testament to their greed or their immorality or their commitment to the cause. Certainly, though, it’s a testament to the persisting desperation of observant women caught in the religious divorce process.
By Jewish law, a husband must present his wife with a get, a document of divorce, for the religious marriage to be terminated—even if a civil divorce decree is already in effect. Without a get, she cannot remarry, lest she be shunned by the Orthodox community. And any children she may have by a different man will be considered illegitimate and unable to marry within the faith. So clearly is the requirement for a get laid out in the religious scripture, rabbinical authorities maintain that they’ve been left with little leeway for interpretation. Thus the very few avenues of recourse available to the get-less woman in the United States in 2013 are not so different from the ones that were available to her in pre-war Europe. From Deuteronomy 24:1-2: “When a man marries a woman or possesses her, if she is displeasing to him…he shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thus releasing her from his household. When she thus leaves his household, she may go and marry another man.”
A woman whose husband won’t give up the get is referred to as an agunah, from the Hebrew for “chained,” and the condition is more common than you might imagine. A survey spearheaded by Barbara Zakheim, co-founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA), found that between 2005 to 2010, there were over 460 cases of “shackled” Jewish women in North America, a number that underrepresents the problem; the research team didn’t reach out to agunot directly, but to domestic abuse and family service organizations—and by and large, agencies serving more right-wing communities declined to participate. Zakheim also found that a sizeable number of agunot were living in poverty and not receiving any sort of spousal support. “There were changes made to halacha [Jewish law] during ancient times and in that respect, those ages were more progressive than the one we’re living in now,” she said. “The Orthodox rabbinate need to get their act together to come up with a halachic solution. They have a lot to answer for.”
In Israel, noncompliant husbands are sometimes sent to jail until they agree to sign the get. But America’s secular court system cannot intervene in a religious divorce, leaving the agunah without many options. A rabbinical court might, if the man won’t respond to a summons, issue an order of contempt, which essentially states that the woman’s husband has refused to grant her a get and calls on the Jewish community to take a stand. She might also approach an advocacy group like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), a New York-based non-profit that, since its founding in 2002, has resolved 205 agunah cases worldwide. ORA works, free of charge, to open the lines of communication between the two parties. Failing that, it exerts legal and halachically sanctioned forms of pressure on the get withholder. “We see the refusal to issue a get as a form of domestic abuse,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, the organization’s executive director. “It’s not just about black and blue marks. It’s about one person asserting their dominance over another.”
Almost always, ORA has found, a man’s motivations for denying his wife a get are about maintaining power and control. The religious divorce document is a strong bargaining chip. It can be used as leverage in negotiations over the house, the car, alimony, child support, custody and visitation rights; indeed, the rabbis have become accustomed to asking the husband what the get is going to “cost” his wife. It can also be used as a tool of revenge or spite, or to force a woman to return to a marriage she doesn’t want. ORA will organize peaceful protests outside of the husband’s home, attempt to ostracize him from the Jewish community and his synagogue, encourage people to boycott his business, publicize his name in the papers and on social media, constantly call his friends and family. But still a man with a get in his pocket might stand fast, even if a significant period has passed since his civil divorce was finalized. “Man,” Rabbi Stern said, as though addressing such a fellow. “She’s just not that into you.”
Caroline Appell, a New Jersey woman, fought for her get for six years. For the last four of those years, she was civilly divorced. Her husband was ordered by the secular courts to pay a certain amount of alimony and child support. He wasn’t happy with the arrangement. “If I had agreed to take nothing, he might’ve given me the get right away,” she ventured. “But I had five kids to put through college.” ORA called her husband—ex-husband by civil decree—once a week or so in an effort of persuasion. Ultimately, the couple agreed to consult a beit din and sign a binding arbitration agreement, which would make the ruling of the religious court enforceable in a civil one.
She knew she was liable to lose big, but Appell had become frantic. “I was 46. Six years had gone by already. He’s from Morocco and I knew that he could just pick up and leave, and I would never have the get.” The beit din heard her husband’s terms and it met most of them: no alimony and limited child support, which her ex-husband has since finished paying. “Was it the best deal?” she asked. “No. Was it better than what I had before? Absolutely.” Appell remarried just over a year ago—but not without first signing a Jewish pre-nup. Such a document empowers the beit din to adjudicate a religious divorce and stipulates that the husband must pay his wife $150, adjustable for inflation, for every day that he refuses her a get while they’re separated.
Other agunot have not been so lucky, if waiting more than half a decade for a religious divorce and forgoing alimony can be called that. Perhaps the most high-profile American agunah, Tamar Epstein, is still without a get, though she’s been civilly divorced from Aharon Friedman, a tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee chaired by Rep. Dave Camp, since 2010. Her supporters have blasted Congressman Camp, using the Web, the media and a petition site to try and persuade him to lean on his aide; they’ve also rallied in front of Friedman’s house and a third protest on Capitol Hill is in the planning. A former agunah who prefers to remain anonymous described to me these kinds of demonstrations, two of which were held outside of her ex-husband’s home before he finally granted her a get last month. “People came who didn’t even know me,” she said, including Epstein’s sister. The protesters chanted her husband’s name and carried signs bearing his photograph. In response, he applied for sole custody, claiming that his wife and the community were harming their children by making his refusal to participate in a religious ceremony a public event.
“People don’t understand how desperate you feel,” the woman told me. “It’s pretty unkind to demonstrate in front of someone’s house like that, but what he was doing was really wrong. He gave no reason for not granting the get other than that he didn’t want to. These agunot just don’t know what else to do."
You hear stories. A woman who paid one million dollars for a get. Another who hired a prostitute to tempt her get-withholding husband. One wife, the last in a line of Holocaust survivors, whose husband refused her a get until she was beyond childbearing age. Physically and sexually abusive men who retained the right to deny their wives religious divorces. The man’s authority here is practically unassailable and the consequences, for the woman, of moving on without his consent are crushing, making this fertile ground for violence and corruption. Kidnappings are not new. Rabbi Mendel Epstein was sued in the late 90s by another Brooklyn rabbi who claimed a group of men shoved him into a van and shocked his genitals with a stun gun. (The case was later dropped.) In 2011, Rabbi David Wax of Lakewood, N.J., was accused of pummeling an Israeli man and threatening him with a body bag. (Wax's lawyers have maintained he is innocent of the accusations.) Centuries ago, using force to summon forth a get was common, and the plight of the agunah has not much evolved since then.
The Jewish pre-nuptial agreement is one widely accepted way to minimize the problem, moving forward; increasingly, rabbis will not perform a wedding without one. But proposals to reinterpret or update the law, or work around it using “loopholes,” have been met with criticism and controversy. Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a prominent figure in Orthodox Jewry in New York, convened a beit din that for nearly 10 years, until his passing, annulled and dissolved Jewish marriages. In that time, he declared released anywhere from 150 to 200 get-less women at their wits’ end—and he was attacked by, more or less, the entire Orthodox rabbinate. “A man who wants to hold a woman prisoner who is clearly never coming back to him is imbalanced, obsessed,” said Susan Aranoff, co-author of a forthcoming book on agunot, who worked closely with Rabbi Rackman’s court. “He wants that last pound of flesh. And the law as read by the rabbis puts all the power in his hands.”
She added: “We believe that there are remedies. It’s within the possibility of Jewish law to say that these”—unions that don’t meet certain expectations, with partners who don’t meet certain standards of behavior—“are not marriages.” The rabbinate would disagree. But surely some of the women left to decide between committing adultery, abandoning the faith or carrying on alone and possibly childless feel caught in an insufferable limbo, not in any kind of marriage.