Thursday, October 10, 2013

Agunos – Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Rabbi Mendel Epstein - Photo credit: 5 Towns Jewish Times
The plight of Agunos is one of many great problems facing Jewry today.  Technically - an Agunah is a married woman whose husband has disappeared and she not does not know if her husband is alive or dead. She thus retains her presumption of being a married woman and is not allowed to get remarried. Proof of her husband’s death is required.  If an Agunah does remarry, she technically commits adultery and thus violates one of the three cardinal sins of the Torah. 

The term Agunah as commonly used today refers to a married woman who knows her husband is alive. The relationship with him has been terminated but they remain Halachicly married to each other because of his refusal to  give her  a Get – a religious divorce. She too may not remarry. In both cases (i.e. a woman who does not know if her husband is alive... and in this one) doing so would violate the cardinal principle of adultery and their children would be Mamzerim.

A man in the same situation has a way out. If his wife refuses to accept the Get, he can remarry under certain circumstances. On a biblical level  a woman may not have more than one husband, but a man may have more than one wife. Although there is over a millennia old rabbinic prohibition on a man doing so (called Cherim D’Rabbenu Gershom)  exceptions are made under some circumstances. 100 rabbis can technically permit  a married man to marry another woman. This is called a Heter Meah Rabbanim. Women do not have this option. Thus they end up in dire straits with no recourse if their husbands refuse to give a Get.

Batei Din (Jewish courts) who understand the legitimate plight of the Agunah have tried various ways to help these women by trying to convince the recalcitrant husband to change his mind. These husbands are strongly pressured via being ostracized from their community - or even by being jailed. Sometimes that works.  But in far too many cases there are men who are so vengeful about their wives leaving the marriage that they refuse to give a Get out of spite. In order to hurt their wives - they are willing to suffer.

There is nothing that can be done at this point. Halacha tells us that a husband must willingly give a Get. If he is somehow forced to do so against his will, the Get is invalid. This is called a Get Meusa (forced Get). They remain married – thus leaving the wife an Agunah.

What constitutes force is a matter of debate. The Rambam (Nashim 2:20) states that if a man refuses to give his wife a Get, Beis Din should beat him with a rod until he says ‘I want to give it!’ That formulation is very important.  Because the husband must want to give the Get.  He may not say I don’t want to give the Get but I am being forced to. The resulting Get would be invalid.

The idea behind the Rambam is that beating the husband with a rod will get him to realize the error of his ways and do the right thing by willingly giving a Get. The question in our day is how we can possibly know whether he has really changed his mind or is simply trying to avoid further punishment.

Unfortunately this rather unfair situation has some unscrupulous people taking advantage of it. Agunos have no way out and therefore become justifiably desperate to change their unmarriageable status. And this has once again led to another tremendous Chilul Hashem involving a respected  Rosh Yeshiva in Monsey. From VIN:
An FBI raid on a Monsey yeshiva late Wednesday resulted in four arrests, including three rabbis who are charged with pressuring Orthodox Jewish men into granting religious divorces to their wives in exchange for money. 
WABC NEWS ( is reporting that Rabbi Mendel Epstein, Rabbi Martin Wolmark, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, as well as a fourth man, Ariel Potash, were all taken into custody in connection with the raid that was conducted at 9 p.m. Wednesday at Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Monsey…
A source close to the investigation said that the ring involved Orthodox wives seeking divorce making payments to the rabbis—-in some cases up to $100,000—-who then facilitated the divorce, often through violent means, with the rabbis hiring thugs to beat the Orthodox Jewish husbands into agreement. 
The source said the ring has been in existence for more than 20 years.
The raid is the result of an undercover sting.  A female FBI agent posed as a member of the Orthodox community seeking a divorce. According to there are accusations of kidnapping, beatings and physical torture — including the use of an electric cattle prod !

Torture?!  Are we supposed to believe that a Get given in this way is not Get Meusah?! 

I don’t know what Rabbi Epstein’s motive was. Perhaps he truly wanted to help Agunos. And perhaps those large sums of money truly went for expenses. Hiring thugs to beat people up and torture them can be expensive. I’m sure that he did not pocket any profits. He probably gave any leftover sums of money to his Yeshiva.

But brutality like this is unacceptable. And his mssion was left unaccomplished. A Get Meusa is invalid. If descriptions in the media are accurate, this Rosh Yeshiva not only committed a Chilul HaShem, but is responsible for the Mamzer status of all children that are products of it. 20 years worth of them, it appears. 

Rabbi Epstein was a known resource for Agunos. He has dedicated his life to alleviating the plight of Agunos and is responsible for thousands of divorces according to an article in the 5 Towns Jewish Times.  He was known to get the job done. Now we know how.  When a man of this stature falls - the Chilul HaShem is magnified. How sad for Klal Yisroel.