Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Religious Divorce: Where Does Justice Lie?

Meir Kin (right) and his new wife at their wedding - Photo credit: NYT
There are always two sides. That’s what makes discussion of this issue so difficult for me.  But not difficult enough to have a firm opinion on how to handle a religious divorce in Judaism otherwise known as a Get.

There is never an excuse to withhold a Get from a woman. NEVER! So strongly do I feel about this issue now, that I can’t envision any circumstance where a Get should not be given when a marriage is no longer viable. Even when there are legitimate issues to discuss like custody of the children or post divorce financial arrangements (e.g. alimony and/or child support). If there is no hope that there will ever be reconciliation, the Get should be given without any preconditions.

I do not say this lightly. Because I am absolutely certain that divorce is not always the husband’s fault. Sometimes it is the wife who is a fault. People can be evil. Evil knows no gender. I need not go into details but it isn’t too difficult to imagine how some husbands are treated during divorce proceedings. Like being accused by the wife of molesting their children in an attempt to get full custody. These things unfortunately do happen. 

Nevertheless, there is no way I could in good conscience ever support using the Get as any kind of leverage in any situation. Because that gives an unfair advantage to husbands. Once you allow the Get to be used for leverage, there is no end to the kind abuse it can entail.  Since a woman can only be freed of the bonds of marriage if the husband willingly gives her a Get, he is the one holding all the cards. Even long after they stopped living to together as husband and wife and a civil divorce had been executed.

I am not saying that serious issues between divorcing couples shouldn’t be addressed. Of course they should.  But not at the point of a gun.  Once the marriage is over - a Get should be executed right away. Then they can talk. I believe justice will prevail most of the time. A truly good father can get custody over an irresponsible mother. I know at least one Orthodox family where the wife sued for full custody and father wanted joint custody. They went to court and the father got full custody. The Get was never used for leverage. It was given right away.

Unfortunately the world doesn’t work that way.  The plight of Agunos is very much alive precisely because there are husbands that do use a Get for leverage. They will extort exorbitant amount of money as the price of giving one. One such case was reported recently in the New York Times.  Meir Kin is withholding the Get from his civilly divorced ex-wife. He is asking for full custody of their 12 year old son and  $500,000.

This is extortion pure and simple. Not only that but he has remarried. Or more correctly married a second wife.

Now Halacha clearly forbids a man from having more than one wife. This has been the case for over 1000 years. But the prohibition is rabbinic. Biblically he is allowed to have more than one wife. A rabbinic prohibition may be structured any way the rabbis choose to do so.  Which in this case enabled loopholes. Specifically one called a ‘Heter Meah Rabbonim’. In the unusual circumstance when a wife is unable or refuses receive the Get, a husband may seek 100 rabbis to ‘permit’ a husband to marry 2nd wife.

A Woman who does not accept a Get remains married to him, whether he likes it or not… whether he lives with her or not. A Heter Meah Rabbonim frees him to marry a second wife. A woman whose husband refused to give her a get has no such recourse.

Nonetheless I don’t think it is unreasonable to utilize this loophole if it is the wife who refuses to co-operate. There is no reason to insist that men should be put in the same ‘Agunah’ box as woman if there is a legitimate option for them. It isn’t going to help Agunos to force men to suffer from the same problem.

But the Heter Meah Rabonim does have potential for abuse. And in the case Meir Kin, that is exactly what happened.  He found a court that somehow executed a Heter Meah Rabbonim for him. He was thus permitted to marry  a 2nd wife and continue withholding the Get from his first wife until she pays his ransom and gives up custody of their son to him.

According to the Times, no other Beis Din (religious court) outside of the one that gave him this Heter recognizes the court that issued it. There is even some question as to whether he actually got one. But even if he didn’t, he is biblically allowed to have 2 wives. His wife may not have two husbands. Doing so is biblical level adultery

This situation is outrageous. This Rasha gets to go on with his life all while holding his first wife hostage - unable to remarry unless she pays his price!

Mr. Kin has been has been ostracized by the religious community. The court that issued him the Heter Meah Rabbonim is discredited. But I guess none of this bothers him.  $500,000 is a lot of money. 

In my view maximum pressure must be exerted on people like this to stop torturing others for finaical – or any other gain.

The New York Times reports that there are 2 Chabad Shuls in Las Vegas (where he currently lives) that allow him to Daven there.  They do not count him for the Minyan - but in my view that is not enough. They must ban him entirely.  The entire community must publicly shun him. Unless and until he gives his first wife a Get, he should completely rejected by everyone. There should be absolutely no place for this man to go.

It is people like this that result in the kind of court that caused another Chilul HaShem in reverse. Members of that court were arrested for kidnapping and torturing husbands like this into giving their wives a Get. We cannot have these to extremes in Judaism. Torture is not what Judaism is all about under any circumstances. But that does not absolve us from our responsibility to do whatever we can on a communal level to see that justice is done for the Agunah.

Update: Revised for clarity in Halacha