Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Beating in Lakewood

Once again we are witness to violence in the name of God - this time by a religious couple in Lakewood. From ABC News:

According to the criminal complaint, the Waxes convinced the victim, known only by his initials, Y.M.B, to come to their Lakewood home in the early morning hours of Oct. 17, 2010 to discuss the Talmud. After he arrived, two unidentified males jumped him in a second-floor bedroom, punching him in the face.

After the attackers allegedly handcuffed, bound and blindfolded the victim, the victim said that he heard them say he had to grant his wife a divorce without receiving custody of the children. The victim said that David Wax then picked the victim's head off the floor, allowing him to see under the blindfold. Wax was wearing a white cowboy hat. "Do you like my hat?" asked Wax, before allegedly kicking the victim in the ribs.

The victim was also allegedly shown a body bag and told "that if he did not comply, he would be buried alive in the Pocono Mountains," according to the complaint. The Poconos are a popular resort area in Eastern Pennsylvania. Wax allegedly laid the body bag on the victim and said, "For you to get used to the size."

This case is not so simple. Only the violence is. If the accusations are true - it was brutal, disgusting and in no way justified. It was a mafia like tactic. And it ought to be condemned by all civilized people.

The reason for the beating may very well have been generated by altruistic motives for the following reasons.

In cases of divorce Judaism requires that a man give his wife a Get – a Halachic divorce. Jewish law has specific requirements without which a divorce is not valid. One of those requirements is that a man willingly hand his wife a Get. We cannot force him to do so. That is called a Get Me’usah (a forced Get) and it is not valid.

Withouth a valid Get any the husband and wife remain Halachicly married. It doesn’t matter whether they have a civil divorce or not. Even if they never see each other again, they are still Halachicly married.

Although there are consequences for both the husband and wife - the wife’s consequences are far more severe. A Halachicly married woman cannot re-marry. If she does she violates the prohibition against adultery and all resulting children are Mamzerim. A Halachicly married man is also forbidden to re-marry but he does not violate adultery in so doing and the resulting children are not Mamzerim.

A woman under these circumstances is called an Agunah. Technically an Agunah is someone who can never be married because of uncertainty about her husband’s death. But the effects here are the same. This woman can never re-marry. She is ‘chained’ to her marriage.

The plight of Agunos is one of the most troubling issues of our day. One over which many Poskim have agonized for generations. If a husband refuses to give his wife a Get, there is precious little that can be done about it. It is in fact a Halacha that is impossible for me to understand. I do not see the fairness in it. But that doesn’t make it any less Halacha.

There have been many attempts to remedy the situation in the past. Some are more accepted than others. Some have caused more Mamzerim to be brought into the world. I will not be getting into those issues.

There is one solution that is relevant here. It is mentioned by the Rambam in Hilchos Gerushin - the laws of divorce (2:20). He says that if a couple files for divorce in Beis Din and it rules that the husband must give the Get and he refuses - Beis Din may give him lashes until he says ‘I want to (give her the Get)’ - Kofin Oso Ad SheYomar Rotzeh Ani! This is not a Get Me’usah because we are not forcing him to give the Get but instead forcing him to change his mind and give it willingly.

The question may be asked, Isn’t this just playing with semantics? The answer is that since it is a Mitzvah to give a Get and ‘free’ his wife to re-marry, he in reality wants to do the Mitzvah. It is only his evil inclination – the Yetzer Hara - that prevents him from doing so. Giving him lashes removes the Yetzer Hara, gets him to see the light, and do the right thing willingly.

We don't give lashes today. But we do have alternative methods of persuasion. One tactic used by Beis Din in the past to accomplish this is to put a recalcitrant husband in a sort of quasi Cherem. They completely ostracise him from the community in various concrete ways. Another tactic is putting a husband in jail until he he changes his mind and gives his wife a Get willingly. Surprisingly even that doesn’t always work.

But the tactic used by the Waxes has gone too far here. They broke the law egregiously –acting like mobsters and thugs.

Besides I do not believe that such tactics work Halachicly. This man gave a divorce after he was kidnapped, physically beaten, and threatened with a horrible death. There is no way one can say that the victim rationally decided he was wrong here and saw the light. He was beaten to a pulp! … and threatened with a horrible death. In my view any Get resulting from this is Passul – completely invalid.

If found guilty this couple ought to be put in jail.

This does not mean I let the recalcitrant husband off the hook. Although there are always two sides to a story a Get should never be used for leverage. Not for custody issues and certainly not for financial ones. Any contentious issues should be worked out in a court after the Get is given. If a man uses a Get for extortion purposes, he is evil in my view.

The recalcitrant husband in this case may very well have been doing that. On the other hand, we do not really know his side of the story. And in any case beating him to a pulp was not the way to fix things. I believe the Get given as a result of that beating is invalid so the Waxes probably did not achieve their intended goal. But they probably did achieve a Chilul HaShem.