Presumably, almost all the readers of this publication are Orthodox Jews – those that pride themselves on serving G-d through fulfilling His commandments. Keeping in mind the rabbinical edict, “A mitzvah that comes your way—don’t miss it!” (Rashi, Bavli Megillah 6b), it would behoove the readers to know that an oft-missed mitzvah has come their way.
The Torah warns us twelve times to have special consideration towards the orphan and the widow – yatom v’almanah. The first such commandment appears in Shemot 22,21: “Any widow or orphan you are not to afflict.” It is followed directly by a description of the consequences to society in its entirety if there is affliction. It is frightening to print in a newspaper column; readers will have to refer to the original.
Rashi clarifies that in essence we are warned not to cause suffering to any individual: “This is the law for all people, here the text spoke in accordance with present reality, for they [widows and orphans] are weak of strength and it is common to find them afflicted.” Or as the Soncino Edition (J.H. Hertz, 1962) commentary states: “Who are bereft of their human protector and destitute of the physical force to defend their rights.” Ibn Ezra adds: “For all who sees one who afflicts an orphan or widow and does not come to their aid, he is also considered to be an afflictor.” Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch enlightens us further: “The widow has lost her mouth in her husband, has nobody to speak for her any longer. The orphan…[suffers from the] misuse his weakness and lack of protection…even rich widows and orphans are easier to be taken advantage of and misused, than other people… in society, amongst people…they are bereft of anybody to stand up for them, to protect them, guide and advise them, and so are exposed to be wronged and humiliated. Hence, in their case the Torah addresses primarily the members of the community in the plural ‘thou shalt not misuse their weakness or make them feel the weakness of their position.’”
Rashi related the mitzvah to reality. The reality today is that there is another individual who has lost her support, has suffered the abuse of her rights and who has no man to serve as her pillar of support. That is the modern-day agunah—the victim of Get-refusal. In fact, the very man upon whom the agunah originally depended to honor her and act as her protector turns against her and abuses his power over her.
There is one agunah today in the United States who is both orphaned of her father and whose husband is refusing (as of the time of this printing) to give her a get. This is Tamar Epstein. Lest one think that this is a problem solely for the rabbis and not for the layperson — the rabbis have already done their utmost to convince Mr. Aharon Friedman to give Ms. Epstein a get, to no avail. In fact not only did the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada issue an Declaration of Contempt (ktav seiruv – see page F1 in this week’s newspaper) against Mr. Friedman, the rabbinic judges included a plea directed to all: “Any person who has the ability or opportunity to influence him to free Tamar Epstein from the chains of her agunah status is obligated to do so and doing so will indeed be the fulfillment of a great mitzvah.”
Each and every reader of these words is now aware of a biblical commandment (mitzvah d’oraita) and a rabbinic-ordained commandment (mitzvah d’rabbanan) to help Tamar Epstein achieve her get. Moreover, most readers recite every Tuesday at the close of the morning prayers (shacharit): “Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy…” Someone has to help Tamar Epstein find relief from the affliction she is suffering. Will you heed the words you yourself recite in prayer? Will you take the mitzvah of helping Tamar to heart? How can you help deliver the get to her hand? It is incumbent upon each and every one in the Orthodox community to consider how he or she can help. It is not easy for readers sitting in the comfort of their own home to actually take action. For that reason an additional commandment was necessary to spell out that one may not stand by when a fellow Jew is in a position of need. It is human nature to need that extra push in order to have the will to help. Now that you know, you cannot stand idly by.
Editor’s Note: A protest rally against Mr. Aharon Friedman’s recalcitrance has been organized by ORA and will be held on Sunday, December 4th, 1 PM at 1131 University Blvd., Silver Spring, Md.
Rachel Levmore, Ph.D. in Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is a rabbinical court advocate; coordinator of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel and the Jewish Agency; and author of “Min’ee Einayich Medim’a” on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.