SAN DIEGO, December 4, 2013 – While civil divorce governs our nation’s secular legal system to provide common ground among all Americans, many couples answer to a higher authority as directed by their religious faith. To them, proceedings governing family law whether part of Mormonism, Catholicism, or Orthodox Judaism are just as binding and equally important ethically, emotionally, and spiritually.
The Orthodox Jewish community was horrified when it learned that two rabbis and two other men had been arrested in raids earlier this month after an FBI sting in New Jersey and New York of plotting to kidnap and torture a man to force him to grant a religious divorce.
This form of divorce is known as a “get.” It is believed that God, who prescribed a formula for the fusion of souls, also gave instructions how two souls can be severed.
As described on the website Chabad.org, according to biblical law in the Orthodox branch of Judaism, a married couple is released from the bonds of matrimony only through the transmission of a bill of divorce from the husband to the wife. This document, commonly known by its Aramaic name, “get,” serves not only as a proof of the dissolution of the marriage in the event that one or both wish to remarry, it actually effects the divorce.
The husband was given the responsibility of marriage and the financial obligations of divorce at the wedding ceremony, so he must formally end the marriage. The ceremony takes place in a rabbinical court and involves a handwritten divorce decree traditionally written in Aramaic by a rabbi, with both spouses present.
Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark charged Jewish women and their families thousands of dollars to obtain these religious divorces or “gets” from husbands who refused to grant them. According to the FBI, the price tag was more than $50,000.
Two undercover FBI agents posing as a wife unable to get a divorce from her Orthodox Jewish husband and her brother contacted Rabbis Wolmark and Epstein in August about seeking a divorce. According to the complaint, Epstein spoke about forcing compliance through “tough guys” who use electric cattle prods and even place plastic bags over the heads of husbands.
They met with Epstein at his Ocean County home in August, during which the rabbi spoke about “kidnapping, beating and torturing husbands in order to force a divorce,” according to the legal complaint filed in New Jersey court.
“Basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get,” Epstein is quoted as saying during the conversation, which was videotaped.
Epstein is also quoted saying his group would resort to kidnapping if necessary, which raised the price to as much as $60,000 to pay some “tough guys” to do the dirty work.
While Jewish law requires one to follow the law of the land, and thus necessitates a civil divorce as well, a civil divorce cannot serve as a substitute for a halachic (conforming to the strictures of Jewish law) get. Without a get, no matter how long the couple is separated, and no matter how many civil documents they may have in their file cabinet, in the eyes of Jewish law the couple is still 100% married.
Most divorces go smoothly with the parties in full cooperation. The husband gives the get and the religious divorce is complete. But there are situations in which a husband refuses to give the get. The motivation can be financial, it can be vindictive, or it can be due to a husband in denial hoping for reconciliation. Whatever the reason, when a husband does not give his wife a get, she may be legally divorced according to the state, but she cannot remarry under Jewish law.
It’s entirely possible a woman in these circumstances desperate to get her religious divorce (perhaps to remarry) might be desperate enough to pay for the services of the two rabbis willing to apply some illegal force for dirty money like the two rabbis in this case. Call it making an offer the husband can’t refuse.
According to the legal complaint, the actions of the rabbis were sanctioned by a rabbinical court. This isn’t acceptable activity in the United States.
It would sadden me to see a backlash against this religious practice because of flaws in the process that can be corrected. Actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”) recently went through an Orthodox Jewish divorce, and wrote about it for the blogsite Kveller.com. She found it to be a moving, thoughtful experience that helped her process her divorce in a healthy way.
“A get proceeding is one of psychological and emotional completion … The term “closure” has never made more sense to me than in the get proceeding.
“The get process is the last joint venture you partake in as a couple, but it’s a great model for your future relationship, especially if you have kids together … If you can’t imagine sitting for 90 minutes in a room with your ex, how do you intend to conduct yourself for the next years as you co-parent?
“The get process, like much of Judaism, forces you to not run from grief. It’s the mourning process for your marriage, and just like the period of shiva which Jews observe for the seven days following a death of a spouse, child, parent, or sibling, the get allows you space to grieve, a place to put your grief, and a set of rituals designed to help you through it.”
An alternative solution recommended by some Orthodox leaders is a specific type of prenuptial agreement, called the “Halakhic Prenup.” It is currently available and comes recommended by respected rabbinic authorities. The prenuptial agreement triggers a daily fine of $150 if a husband withholds a get. An alternative version triggers a conditional get based on certain agreed upon events; infidelity, domestic violence, child abuse, or substance abuse.
As a family law attorney who frequently recommends couples planning to marry to get a prenuptial agreement, this is an ideal solution that mirrors protections under our civil laws in the United States. The Halakhic Prenup is slowly catching on. It would be smart for educated, modern Orthodox Jewish rabbis to insist on one at every wedding they officiate.
Myra Chack Fleischer serves as Lead Counsel for Fleischer & Ravreby in Carlsbad, California with a focus on divorce, property, custody and support, settlement agreements, mediation, asset division and family law appeals. Read more Legally Speaking in Communities Digital News. Follow Myra on Twitter: @LawyerMyra. Fleischer can be reached via Google +
Copyright © 2013 by Fleischer & Ravreby, Attorneys at Law