Rabbinically Sanctioned Violence, Divorce and The Law

News broke this morning that Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark had been arrested following an FBI sting operation. It is alleged that they have been coercing Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands through the medium of violence for a fee.

This is one of those thorny issues that tears at the moral fabric of Judaism and brings into sharp focus the tension between modernity, rabbinic stricture and secular law. According to Jewish law the grant of a divorce can only emanate from a man, subject to certain exceptional circumstances where the decree can emanate from the Bet Din (Jewish Law Court).

This unique phenomenon in Judaism which from the biblical story of the daughters of Zelophehad granted more rights to women than most other theocracies, has troubled the Rabbinate for millennia. From Talmudic times a recalcitrant husband could be flogged without mercy until he granted a divorce and in modern Israel a man can be imprisoned until he relents. This is to prevent the woman being deemed an “aguna” a chained woman, especially where the civil divorce decree has been made and the Jewish one had not.

One of the main achievements of Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, was The Divorces (Religious Marriages) Act of 2002, which sought to remedy this issue. In the US however, where no protections on the same level have been afforded, or where there has been no civil marriage (common in ultra-orthodox communities) what recourse is left to the women?

If there is an amenable Bet Din, the recalcitrant husband can be ostracized, synagogues can refuse to give the man honors but often this falls flat as the husband seeks to extort the wife’s family for money.

The alleged actions of Rabbis Epstein and Wolmark, while being evocative of a bygone age, where men were kidnapped and beaten until the wife can be freed, present not a legal quandary but an ethical one. Of course, vigilantism can never be condoned and the criminal law must be enforced. However, how the law will address abuse of the abuser will remain to be seen.

One might suspect that the allegations that the Rabbis were commanding fees in the thousands for this “service” will undoubtedly feature heavily in this case, as it might be seen that those in authority were seeking to capitalize on the misery of women.

Judaism has given so much to the law, both secular and religious, and it is incongruous that a peaceful religious-secular legislative solution has not yet been found. However, this should promote a proper debate as to why a power vacuum has been allowed to arise such that Agunot feel impelled to resort to paying for violence.

Robert Garson
rg@gs2law.com