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Rabbinic Violence

A thousand years ago Rabbeynu Tam, the greatest rabbi of his day, forbade beating men up as a way of compelling a recalcitrant husbands to grant a Get.

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I can’t even begin to express how embarrassed I am by the case currently getting massive exposure in the United States press and TV about a collection of religious Jews who have been charged with trying to arrange for a man who refused to give his wife a Get to be kidnapped, beaten, and tortured until he capitulated.

A sting operation took place. FBI undercover agents managed to get recordings of rabbis and fixers saying how and what they would do when they got hold of the recalcitrant husband. Graphic descriptions of electric cattle prods being applied to the victim’s private parts was simply icing on the cake of self-incrimination. But I must not prejudge the issue, innocent until proven guilty and all that. Some people have argued that there are worse dangers to be pursued and this was just a politically correct counterbalance to all those stings that have trapped Muslim terrorists. Others say the victim deserves it for being such an evil person.

There are several huge issues here that concern me and should concern anyone who takes the idea of Chillul HaShem, desecrating the Lord’s name, seriously. Maimonides, in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, makes it the first principle of Jewish behavior. This whole sorry story makes for a massive humiliation of Jewish law. Make no mistake about this, any normal average non- Jew hearing all this could not but conclude that Torah Judaism has a problem with violence and corruption, and that Jewish law on divorce makes the Taliban look positively progressive.

Why is it that so many men of limited intellect and capacity around the world carry out continuous and gratuitous rape and violence against women? The answer is that they have such a profound realization of their own inferiority that they have to take it out on someone even more vulnerable and who in many primitive societies is regarded as inferior. So they take it out on women, and the women in turn take often take it out on disadvantaged weaker women, and then on their own children. Violence begets violence.

One would like to think the Torah world is better. In many ways it is. But how else can one explain the amount of petty violence apparent in certain sections of the supposedly Torah world as the product of violence done to them. This year alone the non-Jewish public has learnt of apparently religious Jews setting other Jews on fire because they disagree religiously; Jews killing and sexually abusing other Jews; and I won’t even begin to enumerate the number of charges against Orthodox Jews for corruption, deception, and financial irregularities. What is wrong with these people? Indeed, what is wrong with their rabbis who seem so in love with money that blinds them to their moral responsibility to be seen to be upholding the law of the land? Kohelet was right three thousand years ago when he said, “And money covers up everything.” And the saddest point of all is that any time I come out and say this, instead of addressing the issue, people prefer to blame the messenger, attack me, argue that other societies are worse, anything but face up to the issue.

Torah is supposed to be pure, enlightening, and reviving, says the Book of Psalms. But this makes Torah out to be unfair and discriminatory. This whole episode revolves around the offensive fact that if a husband refuses to give his wife a religious bill of divorce she can never ever, ever remarry. How on earth can God’s law discriminate so against women, leaving them trapped and hopeless? And why do people then resort to violence outside of the law when one would expect the law to defend the disadvantaged?

A thousand years ago Rabbeynu Tam, the greatest rabbi of his day, forbade beating men up as a way of compelling a recalcitrant husbands to grant a Get. Why? Many argue because it created a very negative impression in a Christian world which any way at the time did not recognize or approve of divorce. Rabbeynu Tam was indeed worried about how we would appear to our non- Jewish neighbors. But at least the Christians found a way round it by annulling marriages, usually on spurious grounds. We too have this possibility. There is a principle in Jewish law “Whoever marries does so according to rabbinic law and therefore the rabbis have the right to annul a marriage.” But rabbis have consistently refused to make use of this power. Sometimes I wonder if its either pigheaded stubbornness or just male chauvinism. Sadly it lays women open to blackmail. But if we were really worried about making fools of ourselves and demeaning Torah in non-Jewish eyes, why are we not concerned about doing something about it?

According to Jewish law, if, after I have made a commitment, I discover something about the other party that had I known about beforehand I would never have bound myself in the first place, that agreement is null and void. Wouldn’t any woman say that if she had known what evil her husband really capable of before she married him she would never have married him in the first place? Isn’t that, equally, grounds for invalidating the marriage agreement? If, understandably, one doesn’t want to use this power cavalierly, why not at least occasionally, as a recent Beth Din in Israel did? This whole public relations fiasco would never have arisen if there had been a fair way of releasing a woman legally through the Torah.

Frankly, I’d love to beat up any bastard who so cruelly ruined a woman’s life and made her suffer till her dying day. But I cannot because I fear the consequences, I hate violence, and because it would be a terrible Chillul HaShem.

So I blame the rabbis who refuse to find ways of releasing women whose husbands withhold a Get for this public humiliation of Judaism. It isn’t enough that we have bred a generation of religious toughs who use violence as a way of resolving differences, but that we actually encourage them to do so because the law as currently applied is giving no alternative.

If the Talmud is so authoritative and important, and if there are religious authorities who rabbis simply ignore it when it suits them, how in Heaven’s name can I call them anything else but those who assist in desecrating the good name of Heaven and Torah? The Talmud says in Yoma, only death atones for anyone guilty of desecrating the Name of God. By refusing to act within the law we are only encouraging others to break the law.

Jeremy Rosen

About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.


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