The Divorce Force

By J.J. Goldberg

Gangs of masked, Yiddish-speaking thugs inBrooklyn have been abducting Orthodox Jewish men and beating themsavagely to force them into granting their wives a religious divorce,or get, according to several men who say they were victims of such assaults.The beatings allegedly were ordered by an Orthodox rabbinicalcourt.

The story surfaced just before Purim, but it’s nojoke. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office is investigating twocases and may submit evidence to a grand jury within weeks, the DA’sspokesman says. Newsday, a local daily, reports that it has uneartheda dozen such get-related assaults.

One of the alleged victims, Abraham Rubin, filed a$100 million civil racketeering lawsuit in state court in Januaryagainst the people he claims attacked him. The suit names severalprominent rabbis charged with authorizing the assault.

Also named is America’s second-largest Orthodoxrabbinic association, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the UnitedStates and Canada, which the lawsuit says acted “in conspiracy” withsome of the accused rabbis. The union’s executive vice president,Rabbi Hersh Ginsberg, says that his group had “nothing to do” withany beatings, adding: “We have 500 members, so whatever a member mayor may not do has nothing to do with us.”

The union last won headlines on the eve of Purim1997 by decreeing that Reform and Conservative Judaism were notJudaism. Founded in 1900, it is the oldest Orthodox rabbinic group inAmerica. Often derided by critics as marginal, the union’s membershipincludes some of the leading Talmudic authorities in traditionalOrthodoxy.

The allegations are the latest twist in acontinuing Orthodox debate over the fate of agunot, or “chainedwomen”—women who cannot remarry, because their husbands won’t givethem a get. In rabbinic law, the divorce document can only beinitiated by the husband. An ex-wife without a get is still a wifeand may not remarry, though a husband without a get may sometimestake a second wife.

Women’s rights advocates say that husbands oftenuse the get to extort better financial or child-custody terms than acivil court might grant. Many agunot, activists say, are womenfleeing abuse. Their number is unknown, but some activists put it inthe thousands.

Rumors of get-related beatings have beencirculating for years, but “there’s never been any hard evidence,“said Susan Aranoff, who is with the women’s rights group Agunah Inc.“We think it’s barbaric.”

A beating is rumored to cost about $5,000,including rabbinical court fees.

Rubin and his attorney, Thomas Stickel, held apress conference last week with five other Orthodox men who claimedto be victims of get attacks, including one beaten in 1992 bybat-wielding, Yiddish-speaking thugs in ski masks. Stickel believesthe same group of rabbis ordered most of the assaults.

Rubin’s lawsuit paints a sad picture of a 1986marriage that ended in 1990, when his wife, Chaya, fled to Canadawith the children. She agreed to settle their dispute in rabbinicalcourt, the suit says, but, instead, she obtained a civil divorce inMontreal in 1992. Then she asked for a get.

Beginning in 1995, the suit says, a series ofrabbinical panels ordered Rubin to appear for divorce. In 1996, aseven-member “star-chamber-like tribunal” allegedly issued a writ,“ordering plaintiff’s abduction and torture.” On Oct. 23, 1996, Rubinsays, he was snatched off a Borough Park street by three men whodragged him into a van, handcuffed, blindfolded and beat him, andrepeatedly shocked him with a stun gun, demanding in Yiddish that heissue a get. He says that he passed out and was later dumped near acemetery. Stickel says that Rubin was told the get had been concludedwhile he was unconscious.

In the broader Jewish community, the case hasaroused, well, not much of a reaction. Only two secular tabloids,Newsday and the New York Post, even reported the story. Orthodoxleaders who are asked for comment typically offer responses rangingfrom “nothing’s been proven” to “it’s not news; we’ve known aboutthis for years”—sometimes both from the same person.

The community’s ringing silence is not hard toexplain. It’s tough to know whom to dislike more in this, a sordidtale without good guys. But the silence also betrays a largerpathology: a tendency in the Jewish community, particularly theOrthodox community, to circle the wagons and resist outsidescrutiny.

It’s an old instinct, based on real fears ofvulnerability and a determination to shut out the outside world. Butit won’t work anymore. The outside world keeps creeping in.

Agunot were rare until recent times. That waspartly because divorce was infrequent, and partly because rabbis oncehad the power to flog a husband until he agreed to divorce. Israelirabbis can still jail a husband, but rabbis elsewhere have no suchpower. Not legally.

The problem is most acute in the United States.Because of church-state separation, no central authority governsrabbinic courts here, so husbands may bring a divorce to any tribunalthey choose. Some right-wing panels are known for favoringhusbands.

What’s emerged is basically a home-grown Americanproblem, something the Talmud never foresaw: growing numbers of wivesopting out, growing numbers of husbands refusing to free them. TheOrthodox community faces a crisis that it is just beginning toacknowledge. Society’s ills are taking a toll on a community thatlikes to think itself immune.

Actually, pummeling husbands isn’t the onlyhalachic way to help agunot. One tribunal in New York, headed byRabbi Moshe Morgenstern, began arranging divorces last year withoutthe husband’s participation. The panel uses an old procedure, akin toannulment, in which a get can be written without hubby’s consent ifthe rabbis rule the original marriage contract invalid.

But Morgenstern’s panel has evoked gales ofprotest from a spectrum of Orthodox rabbis who say the speedy getsare invalid. In January, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis convened aspecial “emergency meeting” to condemn the tribunal’s work as”deceitful.”

The reported get beatings, if proven true—andfew who know the community doubt there’s something there—are asign of what happens when change strikes a community that doesn’t believe in change. An irresistible force meets an immovable object.The result is violent chaos.

“This is what’s going on,” says Morgenstern. “It’sperfectly legitimate to beat the husbands up, but it’s treif to annul the marriages. There’s something wrong with that. Whether or not itwas once acceptable to use corporal punishment, it’s now against thelaw.”

J.J. Goldberg is author of “Jewish Power:Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.