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October 24, 2014 / 30 Tishri, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘agunot’

Justice For The Agunah

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Not every marriage is successful. Despite our desire for each to be perfect, we know the truth is there are hundreds of reasons a man and a woman, once joined in love and joy, should no longer remain together. When that happens, Judaism recognizes the need to let the marriage come to an end in a way that allows both husband and wife to grieve for what could have been but wasn’t and then go forward with a productive and meaningful life.

The Torah envisions the reality of our deepest relationships by providing both the road map for marriage – the ketubah – and the mechanism for ending a marriage – the get.

In recent months and years we’ve heard more and more of men – learned, yeshiva-taught men – who withhold gitten from their wives; wives who have a God-given right to be released from their failed marriages. Such cruelty by such men damns these agunot to a non-life.

And it is wrong. Just how wrong can be clearly understood by an examination of the beis din’s elevated role in the community and the holiness of Shabbos and Yom Tov. Simply consider that a beis din does not convene on Shabbos or Yom Tov. At first glance, this would seem obvious. However, it is closed not only for judgment but also for deliberations among the dayanim (judges), even though one could suggest that dayanim deliberating without issuing piskei din (decisions) is little different from talmud Torah.

The Talmud, in Masechet Beitzah (37a), teaches that a beis din does not issue judgments on Shabbos and Yom Tov lest the dayanim be prompted to write p’sak din and thereby transgress the prohibition of ketivah (writing).

The role of the beis din, however, is not only to rule but also to mete out punishment. Further, it is empowered to imprison one whom the dayanim suspect may escape in order to avoid appropriate punishment. It would seem that these beis din actions would be excluded from the Talmud’s prohibition of lo danin, not to issue rulings. These responsibilities and actions require no writing. Yet, quoting Shibolei Haleket,the Rema rules that it is prohibited to punish or imprison on Shabbos and Yom Tov, a ruling founded not on the Talmud’s positions on danin but rather because God ordained that punishments cease on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

As Rambam teaches (Hilchot Shabbat 23:14), “we do not punish on the Shabbos…. if one was sentenced to lashings or to death, we do not mete out the lashings (malkos) or execute him on the Shabbos…” The Shibolei Haleket further ruled that it is likewise forbidden to imprison one who the dayanim fear may try to escape punishment – because imprisonment is also a form of punishment.

The Sefer Hachinuch (Vayakhel) explains the basis of this principle that all are gifted with a day of rest: “…It was the will of God to honor this day, that all should find rest in it, even the sinners and the guilty. A parable teaches that a great king summoned the people of the country to a one-day feast; a feast when he would invite every man, bar none, to the celebration even though immediately after the feast day he would sit in judgment (of some who were present at the feast). So in this matter, Hashem commanded us to hallow and honor the Shabbos day for our good and our merit.”

Even the administration of punishment that may not entail any Chillul Shabbos is forbidden on Shabbos. To imprison one who otherwise might escape punishment is not deliberation of law; it is not adjudication of law, which is rabbinically forbidden; it is not administering punishment, which is biblically forbidden. Yet it is subsumed in the logic and grace of the prohibition to administer punishments – so that all may equally enjoy God’s desire for all to rest, whoever they are.

Rivka Haut, Women of the Wall Co-Founder and Agunot Advocate, Dies

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Rivka Haut, a foremost advocate for agunot, Orthodox women who have been refused a religious divorce and also a founder of the Women of the Wall founder was buried this week after she succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 71.

At the Women of the Wall prayer service on Tuesday, the worshipers recited Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, in memory of Haut.

She led a group of women in a prayer service with a Torah scroll at the Western Wall 26 years ago and later helped found Women of the Wall, which continues to hold a monthly morning prayer service at the Kotel.

Haut also was a founder of the Women’s Tefillah Network.

She was the co-author of four books, “Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue,” with Rabbi Susan Grossman; “Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site,” with Phyllis Chesler; “Shaarei Simcha: Gates of Joy,” with Adena Berkowitz; and a forthcoming book about agunot with Susan Aranoff.

Berkowitz in a Facebook post wrote of an encounter she had leaving Haut’s funeral, “I was stopped by an older woman with a sheitel. … With an ache in her voice and soul she said to me, ‘Who will now be there for all the agunot? Rivka is irreplaceable.’”

Haut had master’s degrees in English literature from Brooklyn College and in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Another NY Man Pleads Guilty of Violence against Divorce-Refusers

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Another New York City man has pleaded guilty to being part of a group of men who used violent means in exchange for pay to force Jewish husbands to give their wives religious divorces.

Simcha Bulmash, 30, of Brooklyn pleaded guilty Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Trenton, N.J., to participating in the extortion ring, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

He faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of $250,000 when he is sentenced in July. He remains out of jail on bail, which includes a $500,000 bond and GPS monitoring.

At least three other members of the ring have pleaded guilty in recent weeks and face the same punishments.

Several men, including two Orthodox rabbis, were arrested last October as part of an undercover FBI sting operation. The ring charged some $60,000 for its services.

The men allegedly kidnapped and beat up recalcitrant husbands until they agreed to the religious divorce.

Orthodox Jewish women cannot remarry without a get, or writ of divorce, granted by a rabbinical court, which requires the husband’s consent. Some husbands and wives withhold a get in order to gain more favorable terms for alimony or custody of children.

A Memorable Weekend for Divorced Orthodox Jews

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Presidents Day Weekend (Feb 14-16) will long be remembered by all who attended the Focus On the Family Shabbaton sponsored by Frum Divorce. There were many facets of the weekend that made it so special, but what really stood out was how special the participants were made to feel.

Frum Divorce, founded to help guide people through the devastation that follows many a divorce, focuses on education and community support services, helping parents to continue raising their children after a divorce in the most positive and safe environment possible. It attempts to strengthen parents in their time of need and offers a safe place to meet and socialize with others who have gone through similar life-altering situations.

I’ve been involved with Frum Divorce from the outset because I see it as corresponding to a lot of the work I do at The Jewish Press helping agunot and others going through divorce.

Until now the organization has focused on monthly events; this was the first time a weekend was planned. And a lot went into the planning. The goal was for men and women who carry heavy burdens to have a wonderful weekend, to listen to insightful lecturers, and to enjoy quality entertainment after Shabbat – and all this with their children present if that was their preference.

In order to attend, applicants had to have completed the Get process.

The list of speakers included Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein, Dr. Faye Zakheim, Dr. Edward Farber, Rabbi Paysach Krohn, and The Jewish Press’s one and only Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.

Every speaker gave down to earth advice and was upbeat and encouraging. I also spoke, relating personal experiences and offering ideas on coping that have helped me overcome difficulties.

I marvel at Rebbetzin Jungreis, who keeps going despite having suffered a broken hip and endured the grueling rehabilitation that accompanied it. Her stories and her deep faith never fail to bring an audience to tears. But her words of encouragement are enough to put hope into the most pessimistic of hearts.

Dr. Faye Zakheim spoke about the recent loss of her beloved husband and how she deals with the changes in her life. Dr. Edward Farber, author of the book Raising the Kid You Love with the Ex You Hate, spoke about the impact of divorce on children.

Anything I write about Rabbis YY Rubinstein and Paysach Krohn would not do justice to their magnetism and the effect they have on listeners.

The 150 attendees filled the room for each of the speakers and would have gladly continued listening long after each presentation was over.

But the weekend wasn’t only about speeches and lectures. The food (from L’Chaim Catering of Monsey) was exceptional and plentiful and the davening was beautiful, with several attending chazzanim davening for the amud. The Havdalah service with musical accompaniment was unusually uplifting.

The fitness room and pool were available after Shabbos, but a full program was still ahead, including a movie, a mentalist and a melaveh malkah.

After the melaveh malkah there was a kumzits with Gadi Bodinger, Moshe Warsawsky and Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky. Listening to beautiful voices singing Jewish songs and joining along with them is one of my favorite activities and I had to tear myself away at 1 a.m.

The children in attendance were treated to special programs and activities but still enjoyed plenty of interaction with their parents. The atmosphere was relaxed, and it’s always uplifting to see moms and dads so involved with their children, particularly at an event like this one.

One of the Shabbaton’s participants was Mrs. Baila Sebrow, a well-known shadchan. She not only met privately with anyone who so desired, she also ran a speed-dating event Friday night after the Oneg Shabbat and made herself available throughout the weekend, helping those who felt somewhat shy about meeting other guests.

Report of Tamar Epstein Get Denied

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

A source close to Aharon Friedman, the estranged husband of Tamar Epstein, is denying a report that he has granted his wife a religious writ of divorce, or get.

This week, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, issued a flyer and fundraising call announcing that “Tamar is Free,” leading to an erroneous JTA report that Epstein’s case was resolved with the awarding of a get. According to Orthodox law, a divorce is not complete until a husband gives his wife a get; women whose husbands refuse them gets are known as agunot, or “chained” wives.

Though the couple was divorced in civil court years ago, Friedman, an aide to Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, has been the subject of a years-long campaign by Epstein and her advocates to shame Friedman into giving Epstein a get.

On Friday, the source close to Friedman told JTA that he did not give Epstein a get. Friedman declined to speak on the record to JTA.

When contacted by JTA, Meira Zack, assistant director of ORA, pointedly refused to say whether or not Epstein had been given a get and did not explain why the organization considers Tamar “free.” Zack maintains that ORA was authorized by Epstein to make the announcement. Epstein could not be reached for comment.

“All I can say is that Tamar is now free and the case is resolved from our end,” Zack told JTA. “We are not in a position to share more information at this time at Tamar’s request. We have been very careful in saying simply that the case has been resolved. Any other suppositions that people have made have been their suppositions.”

Aside from the granting of a get, the only other means for freeing Epstein from her husband according to Orthodox law would be through an annulment of the marriage by a religious court — an extraordinary move that in Epstein’s case likely would be subject to dispute.

New Hope for ‘Agunot’ Women Trapped by Separated Husbands

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

A new independent rabbinical court to address the issue of agunot, so-called “chained women” whose husbands refuse to give them a religious writ of divorce, will be launched next year, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance announced this week at a conference in New York.

Jerusalem Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi and widely respected scholar, will head the court (Beit Din), which will have no institutional affiliation and will begin operating in New York.

Rabbi Krauss told JTA that the court will utilize little-used, obscure resources in Jewish religious law to free agunot, including the ex-communication from communal prayer of their husbands and Sephardic laws that allow for greater initiative from women in divorce cases.

He said he will leave “no door unopened” in his quest to address the plight of agunot.

Eventually, Rabbi Krauss said, he wants to open an affiliate court in Israel. He also is working on attaining approval from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, which is necessary if the court’s judgments are to be upheld under Israeli law.

“The goal of this project is to humanize the Beit Din,” Rabbi Krauss told JTA. “You can’t solve these situations with sleight of hand. But hopefully we can use the right methodology, so that even these situations get solved.”

He acknowledged that the biggest challenge facing any avowedly independent religious court is mainstream acceptance, particularly within the Hared communities.

“Nobody wants agunot,” Rabbi Kraus said. “So hopefully, if [Haredim] see that we are solving these cases, maybe they will come to us. Or maybe they will follow.”

The Ketubah as a Prenup

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

I was just reading an article in The Forward about a “Jewish prenuptial agreement” being upheld in the American courts.

For the first time, a state court has affirmed the constitutionality of a Modern Orthodox-sponsored prenuptial agreement meant to protect agunot — Jewish women “chained” by husbands who refuse to grant them a religious divorce. Read more.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I have always considered the Ketubah, Jewish Marriage “contract” to be a prenup of sorts.  Actually, it’s not a contract; it’s more of a signed pledge by the husband to give financial compensation to the wife if the marriage must end.

The main purpose of the ketubah is to prevent a husband divorcing his wife against her will, which, in talmudic times, he had the right to do. The knowledge that he had to pay his wife her ketubah would serve as a check against hasty divorce.

The wife promises nothing in return.  The Chabad site adds more information:

The ketubah is a binding document which details the husband’s obligations to his wife, showing that marriage is more than a physical-spiritual union; it is a legal and moral commitment. The ketubah states the principal obligations of the groom to provide his wife with food, clothing and affection along with other contractual obligations.

If the Ketubah would be taken seriously, as an enforceable legal document then there would be fewer agunot, “chained” women awaiting Jewish divorce from their husbands.  And maybe some men would think a lot more before threatening their wives with divorce.

What’s interesting is that the Ketubah actually gives the wife the upper hand in marriage.  It lists what the husband must do and basically takes for granted that the wife will do whatever is expected.  She doesn’t sign the document.

It’s too bad that the Ketubah isn’t taken more seriously in courts, both in Israel and abroad.

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