What Donald Trump and football can teach us about ‘chained’ women

Following eight years of struggle, an Israeli mother named Adina Porat finally received a Jewish writ of divorce, or get, earlier this month, bringing back into the headlines the plight of “agunot” — so-called chained women trapped in marriages and unable to move on because their husbands refuse to grant a divorce.

Porat’s case was brought to a successful, if belated, conclusion thanks to the work of the grassroots Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, which uses public demonstrations to apply pressure to recalcitrant husbands. ORA is working on the cases of another 70 women, mostly in the United States and Israel.

In recent years, advocates have suggested several innovative legal remedies to resolve these cases, prompting heated discussions of religious legal precedent, authority and communal politics. To date, though, not one has been widely adopted.

Professional football may help explain why.

The game remains the most popular spectator sport in America, even as its inevitable and debilitating effects on players have become impossible to ignore. Public intellectuals and medical experts alike have begun to debate its legitimacy as public entertainment, but their concerns have not affected the television ratings. It’s because the violent damage football inflicts is a feature, not a bug. It’s not a problem to be solved but a critical aspect of the game’s appeal.

Donald Trump confirmed this sentiment at a campaign rally on Jan. 10 when he complained that football has become too “soft” and therefore less appealing to viewers. The Republican presidential contender specifically praised a grotesquely brutal (and illegal) shoulder-to-helmet blow during a recent playoff game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers that shocked even the television announcers into silence.

“It’s become weak and you know what? It’s going to affect the NFL,” said Trump, who owned a team in the defunct United States Football League.

Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal offers a clue why this is so in his book “On Sacrifice,” in which he argues that because good causes legitimately deserve sacrifice, we are hard-wired to assume that sacrifice in and of itself can justify or even ennoble a cause.

“This is how the spectacle of brave soldiers casting aside their own self-interest and putting themselves at risk leads to a form of moral self-deception that is difficult to avoid,” he wrote.

In other words, because soldiers sacrifice so much in battle, we are disposed to downplay the moral calamity that wars entail. We focus instead on the valor of the warriors. Similarly, because football players sacrifice so much, both in the moment and with the injuries they cope with for the rest of their lives, their actions carry a heightened significance and meaning. In a world where so much of our entertainment is scripted, contrived and fake, the very real consequences of football are an inextricable part of what makes the game so compelling and its players into larger-than-life heroes.

A similar dynamic is at play in the Orthodox treatment of agunot. Many prominent rabbis have been accused of moral callousness, even misogyny, for not endorsing solutions that could provide broad relief for women trapped in unwanted marriages. This is false. These same rabbis often display the most genuine personal empathy for agunot and serve in the leadership of groups like the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. They almost unanimously have endorsed the “halachic prenup,” a premarital legal agreement designed to prevent future agunot.

But most draw the line there, leaving existing cases to drag on, even as agunot literally sacrifice years of their lives to a system fundamentally unbalanced against them. In a very real sense, their sacrifice is a public, ongoing reaffirmation of the legitimacy and inviolability of the religious laws surrounding marriage and divorce. It is precisely their undeserved suffering that gives those laws tremendous power and gravitas, and makes them inspirational heroes for a community that rallies to support them. A rabbinic court claiming the ability to dissolve a marriage at will, however the mechanism, would instead send the message that the system is, in the end, not very serious at all.

If modern Orthodox leaders and communities truly believe that Jewish law demands that the power to end a marriage should remain exclusively in the hands of a recalcitrant husband, the sacrifices of a few dozen women do not justify a radical legal overhaul — the intensity of their suffering notwithstanding. In fact, their suffering may, in a bitter irony, actually reinforce the significance of their legal chains.

Simply put, Jewish law hurts people sometimes. As with football, that’s not a bug — it’s a feature. And as Trump implicitly understands, we cannot fully legislate or mitigate those features away without undermining the system as a whole.

Halbertal, though, concludes his analysis with a warning: “When morality is depicted as a temptation to be surmounted in the name of a higher goal, it is always someone else who pays the price.” For Halbertal, misguided sacrifice is the very definition of idolatry.

The stakes are high for those of us who uphold the the value of this religious order. We must be mindful both of the noble principles we believe ourselves to be protecting as well as those whose lives and bodies are the price we are prepared to pay for them.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein has served at The Hampton Synagogue and Great Neck Synagogue and is a frequent writer and speaker on contemporary issues in Jewish thought. He stopped following professional football years ago.

10th and final member of ring that ‘unchained’ Jewish women from marriages sentenced

Rabbi Jay “Yaakov” Goldstein was sentenced to eight years in prison for his participation in a ring that violently attempted to coerce Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces.

Goldstein, 61, of Brooklyn, New York, was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced in a statement.

Goldstein was one of 10 people, three of them Orthodox rabbis, convicted for their roles in the ring, which for a fee kidnapped and tortured recalcitrant husbands. He is the last one to be sentenced.

According to halachah, or Jewish law, a Jewish woman cannot remarry without receiving a Jewish divorce, or get, from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, meaning chained women.

The ring’s members were busted in an FBI sting operation in 2013.

NJ rabbi who led divorce ring sentenced to 10 years

A New Jersey rabbi who ran a ring that violently attempted to coerce Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Rabbi Mendel Epstein, 70, was sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, NJ.com reported. Epstein was one of nine people, two of them rabbis, convicted for their roles in the ring, which for a fee kidnapped and tortured recalcitrant husbands.

According to halachah, or Jewish law, a Jewish woman cannot remarry without receiving a Jewish divorce, or get, from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, or “chained women.”

The group’s members were busted in an FBI sting operation in 2013.

Epstein, a prominent rabbi in Lakewood, received the most jail time meted out thus far. Among the six already sentenced, the longest sentence is four years in prison. On Monday, the other rabbi in the ring, Martin Wolmark of Monsey, New York, was sentenced to 38 months.

During the sentencing hearing, according to NJ.com, prosecutors noted that in conversations recorded by undercover FBI agents, Epstein boasted about using a cattle prod and other tools to pressure recalcitrant husbands.

In a 10-minute speech to the judge, Epstein said he was “embarrassed and ashamed” at what he said in those conversations and insisted he had been motivated not by money but by a compassion for agunot.

Brooklyn man sentenced to four years for religious divorce scheme

A Brooklyn man was sentenced to four years in federal prison for attempting to violently coerce a recalcitrant husband into giving a religious divorce.

Moshe Goldstein, 32, was sentenced Monday in federal court in Trenton, New Jersey, NJ.com reported. He pleaded guilty last year to committing extortion and to restraining, assaulting and injuring a man in 2011 on behalf of the man’s estranged wife.

Goldstein, his brother and seven other men, including two Orthodox rabbis, were arrested in October 2013 in an FBI sting operation. He is the first of the group, which is charged with running an operation that used threats of kidnapping, beatings and stun guns to pressure recalcitrant husbands, to be sentenced.

An Orthodox woman cannot obtain a divorce without receiving a “get” from her husband. The women who are trapped in such marriages are called agunot, or “chained women.”

Rabbi Mendel Epstein was convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and Rabbi Martin Wolmark pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Both will be sentenced in December, along with three other members of the group.

Letters to the editor: Divorce in the Jewish community

Getting a Solution 

Thank you, Ryan Torok, for your excellent coverage of the “get” story (“Till Get Do Us Part,” March 28). The “wedding” was a Chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.

The protest is a Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of the God’s name.

Those rabbis who led the protest deserve our praise, our admiration and our gratitude … Rabbi Segal has taught his students at Shalhevet a wonderful lesson in morality, responsibility and Jewish values, most especially in reverence for the halachah. He is especially deserving of praise.

The rabbis who permitted this abomination deserve our scorn.

One can be grateful that Chabad does not count him for a minyan or give him honors within the service. He should not even be allowed to enter the premises. His very presence is an abomination.

And for all of us who respect tradition must insist that Orthodox Rabbis solve this problem. There is a way; all that is missing is courage and determination.

Michael Berenbaum via e-mail

Meir Kin is doing what comes naturally to him, which is looking out for his own selfish interest. I’m not excusing his despicable conduct, but a rally against him won’t fix the problem.

The shanda in this is that the Orthodox rabbinate has not found a way for women to be divorced in every situation in which the wife wishes to be divorced, without the issuance of a get by the husband. A woman should be able to go to a beit din, and receive a declaration of divorce and freedom to remarry in all cases, no questions asked.

If the Orthodox rabbinate could show courage in this, then the problem would end. We find loopholes for nearly everything; pikuach nefesh is the grand catch-all, and certainly halacha has stretched pikuach nefesh for less severe situations. (A doctor can drive to the hospital for every possible minor issue, and a woman can have an abortion because giving birth may have cause her psychological harm, but a beit din can’t rely on pikuach nefesh to order a woman free?)

Jeffrey Rabin via e-mail

For the last month, this paper has done a hatchet job on the Orthodox Jewish community. In articles on the Mizachi family, Dick and Michael Horowitz, Rabbi Ten, yeshiva students in the Israeli army and now the Kin get. This week’s parasha, Tazria, dealt with the consequence of lashon harah and so will next week’s. Whether Meir Kin gives a get to his ex-wife or not will not increase the number of Jewish children getting a quality Jewish education. It will not help bring Jews back to Judaism, have them keep kosher or get Jews to keep Shabbat. It will not help our people overcome sinat chinam or promote love amongst each other. Truly, should the Kin get be the main discussion at the Shabbat table? 

Dory Frank via e-maill

The Divorce Is in the Details

Toward the end of her recent article on agunot (“Confronting the Problem of Orthodox Divorce,” March 28), Alexandra Leichter indicated that Conservative Jews do not have this problem because the international beit din of the Conservative movement has the authority to annul marriages in which the husband has refused to give a Jewish writ of divorce (a get). I would like to add two things to what she correctly said. 

First, the authority to annul marriages is based on the Talmud’s assertion that rabbis have that power). Orthodox rabbis have refused to use this authority that the Talmud gives them, despite the agony of agunot, while we Conservative rabbis will use that authority when no other avenue is open to free a woman from her first husband. 

Second, annulling a marriage is a last resort. Before that, we Conservative rabbis, like Orthodox rabbis, will do what we can to convince the husband to issue a get. In 1968, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued a ruling that provides for using a prenuptial agreement. The agreement, however, is different from the one that some Orthodox rabbis are now using. The latter seeks to impose a fine on the man each day he refuses to issue a get after a rabbinic court orders him to do so, but it is frankly questionable whether rabbis have the authority to collect such a fine. The Conservative prenuptial agreement, in contrast, states that if there is a divorce in civil law and the husband has not issued a get within six months thereafter, he agrees that the marriage was not a marriage from the beginning. This does not require a court to act, whether a civil or rabbinic court; it does not involve threatening uncollectable fines; and while it transforms the couple’s acts of sex within the marriage to the legal status of licentiousness rather than sacred union, it does not affect the legal status of any children the couple had, for an illegitimate child (a mamzer) is only the product of an incestuous or adulterous union, not one that could have been sanctified in marriage. 

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Los Angeles

Letters to the editor: Women of the Wall, Jewish divorces and religion in universities

Western Wall Negotiation

Women of the Wall did not decide to pray on [Religious Affairs Minister Naftali] Bennett’s sun deck (“A Kotel Platform for No One?” Oct. 25). We decided to negotiate with the government on the creation of a third section at the Kotel. This section will have to accommodate our women’s-only prayer group as well as egalitarian services. Bennett certainly did take risks — one big risk was not getting a building permit for the deck. Women of the Wall will be involved in the planning of the third section and will take architecture, aesthetics and utility into consideration. If and when this new section is ready, we will decide whether to move our prayer service from the women’s section to the pluralistic section. I think that an 85 million shekel budget over five years (as was given to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation in 2010), spent judiciously on infrastructure and educational programs, should go a long way toward making the pluralistic section attractive and lively.

Rachel Cohen Yeshurun, Women of the Wall

University Not at Fault

Attacking the university, writ large, as “indoctrination centers designed to discredit religion and morality in order to advance their leftist agendas” must be challenged (Letters, Oct. 25).

It is the writer, Mike Mains, who suffers from blinding ideology because he can’t separate what he thinks about universities and the educational system as a whole from what Erica Hooper  (the woman referred to) actually said. Her complaint simply was that no one was addressing the disconnect she felt between her early Catholic education and the questions she had as she came of age. There are no grounds to indict the university for this disconnect. Where people take their questions is a complex and personal matter. She could have sought answers in many different institutions and individuals.

That said, her struggle is surely an important challenge for all religious traditions. Taking her testimony seriously means that all who care about and foster the Jewish religious and moral tradition need to bravely step up and boldly deal with the issues of the day and those of eternity that are so much on the minds of the successive generations of young adults in college. I have seen the constancy of this issue for the 38 years I have been affiliated with UCLA.

Lastly, I think it is probably true that at the university as wide an array of opinions as have been developed is available for the seeker and that makes it an attractive place for seekers to go.

Doreen Seidler-Feller, Associate Clinical Professor, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and UCLA Department of Psychiatry

Outmoded Divorce Law Enslaves Women

The recent arrest of a gang of get (religious divorce) enforcers has engendered a torrent of articles, letters and columns on the sad fate of Jewish women when it comes to seeking justice in their divorce proceedings (“Outmoded Divorce Law a Real Shandah,” Oct. 18). Because the get must be approved by the husband, he has an effective veto power and can prevent the legal terminations of the wedding.  Rabbis have addressed this injustice for centuries with little to show for it.

That failure is not due to a lack of solutions. Prenuptial agreements, binding arbitration, conditional marriages and civil penalties have all been suggested and attempted, but they fail when it comes to enforcement. The Orthodox rabbinate has been unable to agree on a solution. The result is the thuggery that has been recently reported, but which is new only in its notoriety. Are the only solutions to this injustice choices between religious vigilantism  and feckless conferences?

Lost in this is the fact that the Conservative movement solved this problem years ago. Using the talmudic principle of hafka’at kiddushin, which is well attested in the Talmud and Codes, a certified mesadder gittin authorized by the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative movement may, after investigation and documentation, annul a marriage retroactively when a get is refused. This procedure is, and ought to be, rare, but it is entirely effective. There are no agunot — chained women — in the Conservative movement.

I hope that those who define themselves as Orthodox will find a solution that makes violence and extortion a relic of history. In the meantime, a halachic and ethical solution is readily available.

Rabbi Daniel R. Shevitz, Venice

Gifting the Art of Giving

I read a neat Jewish Journal article a few months ago about Dorothy and Ozzie Goren (“Family Keeps Tzedakah Tradition Going With Funds,” Aug. 30). We are going to try to duplicate a lesson they taught their kids and grandkids about the joy of giving. 

We plan to give our kids and grandkids money this Chanukah and allow them to make donations to the charity of their choice throughout the year. We are asking to see a list of recipients at the end of the year.

We think it’s a great idea. Spread the word!

Sara and David Aftergood via e-mail


“Quiet Neighbors” (Nov. 1) refers to “forged discharge papers, made to look like they were printed at a Syrian hospital” for Syrian patients leaving the Western Galilee Medical Center. However, the hospital itself does not forge any documents. Patients are released to the Israel Defense Forces with accurate discharge papers, according to Sara Paperin, who is charged with coordinating international relations between the hospital and the global community.

Lawmakers have no place in religious lives—even those of agunot

When it comes to politicians meddling in people’s religious lives, the answer should be clear: Don’t do it!

Neither members of Congress nor congressional staffers should be pressuring any individuals to adhere to any particular religious code.

As obvious as that seems, sometimes it gets more complicated, as the case of Aharon Friedman reminds us. Friedman is a staff member in the office of U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Democrat. Friedman also is an Orthodox Jew in the midst of a messy divorce.

Actually, from a civil standpoint, the divorce is over. According to the state, Friedman’s marriage to Tamar Epstein was terminated last April. Jewish law, however, says the couple is still married as Friedman refuses to give his wife a get, or a Jewish bill of divorce.

The New York Times reported that the couple is locked in a bitter controversy over custody and visitation issues regarding their 3-year-old daughter. It also seems likely that their ongoing struggle is rooted in the fact that it was Epstein who originally left Friedman, and he remains hurt and angry. So like many of us, Friedman is punishing his wife for having hurt him. That is not a good excuse and it doesn’t even matter in this case.

The real issue here is not two people who fail to see that they have a religious obligation to end their marriage with as much holiness as they entered it. The real issue here is that Jewish groups are asking Friedman’s employers, both Camp and staffers of the House Ways and Means Committee, to pressure Friedman or even to fire him, if he will not grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Is it really appropriate for Jewish activists and rabbis to advocate for that kind of religious pressure? I don’t know if it is legal for an employers to do so, but I’m sure it is unwise to ask them—especially when the employer is the federal government.

What’s next, demanding the termination of those who fail to contribute the appropriate amount to charity or fail to pay their synagogue dues?

I do not mean to trivialize the tragedy of the situation. In fact, outwardly at least, Friedman appears to be a scoundrel who should be pressed to the wall within his religious community to grant his wife her divorce. But asking the government to do the work of a private religious community—to enforce its religious rules—simply is not proper, especially in this case.

Those who want Camp to fire Friedman or Hill staffers to shun him are avoiding the real challenge within the Orthodox community, i.e., that we still embrace a one-sided system in which only men have the power to divorce. Rather than address either that inequity or mobilize the Jewish community to create real pressure that affords no cover to men who exploit that inequity, people ask others to behave more morally than the community
from which the problems emerged. Bad solution.

Remedies exist to this situation, both proactive ones to prevent further occurrences and others that address those who are languishing as wives tied to mean-spirited and vindictive husbands. The only question is why people lack the will to use them. In that sense, the entire community is to blame for Epstein’s suffering.

We could change the law, though that is not likely to happen in the Orthodox community. We could prevent future occurrences by insisting that no Orthodox weddings will be performed without the use of a Jewishly binding prenuptial agreement that assures the wife’s ability to obtain a divorce should the couple ever separate. We did the same for ketubah, so why not for the prenup?

Finally, we could get serious about punishing husbands who manage to abuse their wives even after they no longer live together.

In other words, it’s time to do our own dirty work. In fact, doing this work isn’t dirty at all—it’s holy work and it’s ours to do. And as the old saying goes, there’s no time like the present.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.”

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, leading Orthodox thinker, dies at 98

Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a leading Orthodox thinker and an early champion of women’s rights, died Dec. 1 in New York. He was 98.

Tributes poured in from around the world last week, many of them praising Rackman for being an Orthodox pioneer in trying to ease the plight of agunot — women whose recalcitrant husbands denied them a religious bill of divorce.

“One did not have to agree with everything he said or believed or proposed, but one had to admit that he was a remarkable human being and a remarkable Jew,” said Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president and now chancellor of Yeshiva University. “He made invaluable contributions to the Jewish community at large, to Israel and especially to the Modern Orthodox community in America.

“He taught the rest of us to have guts,” Lamm continued. “I sometimes thought he relished opposition: It sharpened his own perceptions. Besides, he enjoyed a clean argument ‘for the sake of Heaven.'”

Rackman also was an early supporter of interdenominational dialogue. He was among the first rabbis to travel to the Soviet Union after the fall of Stalin, and upon his return, he drew attention to the plight of Jewish refuseniks.

“They were, he taught us, our responsibility,” said historian Deborah Lipstadt in her eulogy, recalling the sermon Rackman delivered upon his return. ” When I took my first trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 in order to meet with refuseniks, I remembered his words.”

Rackman’s list of achievements is prodigious. Born in 1910, he earned a law degree and a doctorate in political science at Columbia University while studying for the rabbinate at Yeshiva University. He served as a military chaplain in the U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve in World War II, retiring with the rank of colonel.

Rackman went on to the leadership of New York’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Congregation Shaarey Tefila in Queens. He was also a president of both the New York Board of Rabbis and the Rabbinical Council of America.

In 1970 he became provost of Yeshiva University and in 1977 was named president of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Rackman served as chancellor there until his death.

“The university and the Jewish world have lost a giant of a man whose greatness was derived not only by his intellect, but his passion and sense of social justice,” said Moshe Kaveh, Bar-Ilan president.

One of Rackman’s most controversial achievements — and, some say, his greatest — was in the realm of Jewish law, where he was among the earliest rabbis to demonstrate sensitivity to the plight of agunot or so-called “chained women.” In the 1990s he helped establish Beit Din L’Ba’ayot Agunot, the Court for the Problems of Chained Women, which annulled hundreds of marriages using innovative Talmudic reasoning.

The court was widely condemned in the Orthodox world, and many rabbis refused to officiate at marriages of women whose original nuptials were annulled by Rackman. The fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America accused Rackman of “arrogance” and the use of “spurious” legal reasoning, while comparatively more liberal British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks charged Rackman with contributing to the very problem he was trying to solve.

Rackman maintained that his activities were within the realm of Jewish law and drew on recognized halachic precedents. Even Lamm, who approved of Rackman’s objectives if not his tactics on the agunah question, nevertheless credits the late rabbi with drawing attention to an issue many would have preferred to sweep under the rug.

“He put this agonizing problem on the map with great personal power and persuasiveness,” Lamm said. “History will certainly give him credit for that. Even those who disagreed with his Bet Din for Agunot will honor his memory for his courage and good will.”

After a funeral service in New York on Dec. 1, Rackman was buried Dec. 3 in Israel.

He is survived by three sons, Michael, Joseph and Bennett.

Orthodox feminists make little progress on agunot

With strident calls for action and threats of “taking to the streets” if the issue is not soon resolved, participants in the 10th anniversary conference of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) ratcheted up the rhetoric around the plight of agunot, “chained women” whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious bill of divorce.

“Let this be the last JOFA conference where we need to ask if there’s a halachic heter [permissive legal ruling] for agunot,” Tova Hartman, founder of an Orthodox feminist synagogue in Jerusalem, told the approximately 1,000 people, mostly women, who attended a conference earlier this month in New York City. “The time has come to stop kvetching.”

The rhetoric on agunot contrasted sharply from that on other topics at the conference, where a sense of confidence bordering on the triumphant prevailed, owing to the substantial progress made in the decade since JOFA’s founding.

Women today serve as congregational heads, spiritual leaders and advisers on matters of religious law. They have greater access to rigorous textual study that once was the domain of men. And their participation in public prayer is on the rise with the growth of so-called “partnership minyanim,” in which women take on some leadership roles — including reading the Torah and leading certain prayers — in an otherwise typical Orthodox service.

Other issues, like marking a girl’s bat mitzvah, have fallen off the agenda entirely now that such celebrations are par for the course in Orthodox congregations.

“It is a slow and gradual progress,” JOFA Executive Director Robin Bodner said. “There is definitely progress. There is definitely change.”

Hartman electrified the conference with her talk of civil disobedience and the creation of alternative religious courts to address the plight of agunot, who under Jewish law are forbidden to remarry until their husbands have “released” them from marriage with a get, or religious bill of divorce.

In the worst cases, husbands have refused to grant religious divorces to their wives for years, sometimes issuing the documents only in exchange for sizable ransoms.

In the United States, various rabbinic courts and civil laws provide some recourse. In New York, state law requires spouses to remove all religious barriers to remarriage before a civil divorce is granted; a similar law is under consideration in Maryland.

In Israel, marriage remains under the purview of rabbinic courts that have the power to enforce their rulings. The problem, agunot advocates say, is that those powers are rarely used by judges, all of them male and drawn mostly from the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox.

An international rabbinic conference on the topic, the first of its kind, was scheduled for last November by Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar. It was canceled at the last minute, however, reportedly due to pressure from Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, an Ashkenazi rabbi widely considered the most authoritative figure in the fervently Orthodox world.

“It’s time that we in the Modern Orthodox world challenge the power of a handful of extremist Charedi rabbis,” Sharon Finkel Shenhav, the only woman serving on Israel’s commission to appoint religious judges, said at the conference.

Shenhav said the ultra-Orthodox, also known as haredim, control the courts only because “we let them.”

One possible halachic solution, the so-called “tripartite” solution, would have couples sign a prenuptial agreement stipulating that the marriage is dissolved if a husband and wife voluntarily live apart for a certain amount of time.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the American-born chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, argued for that option in an address to a standing-room only crowd at the convention.

While some accused the rabbinic courts of outright corruption, Riskin said the principal obstacle to resolving the issue is the courts’ preoccupation with “what they think is the purity of Israel as over and against the plight of the agunah.”

The tripartite solution is nearly airtight from a halachic standpoint, Riskin said, but it would only affect future marriages and would have little impact on existing agunot. Even so, he’s under no illusions that the idea will be enacted.

“If it does not work, then I believe we will have no choice but to establish alternative batei din,” or rabbinic courts, he said.

JOFA plans to take ads in Jewish media demanding action on agunot from the Orthodox rabbinate. The ads, which call the situation an “injustice” and a “disgrace,” would be timed to coincide with the Fast of Esther, which falls this year on March 1.

“If the community rose up, ultimately that’s how things are changed,” Bodner said. “We need to keep pushing for this change. We’re going to do it. Somehow, some way.”

Iranians Adopt Agreement to Avoid Future Agunot

Rachel R. endured three years of humiliation while seeking a civil divorce from her physically abusive husband in Iran during the late 1980s. Since he had fled their native country, the Islamic regime required her to place ads in newspapers in order to locate him. When the courts finally agreed to hear Rachel’s case, she was required to pay the equivalent of $4,000 to be released from her marriage and granted custody of her children.

Rachel, who asked that The Journal not use her real name, is now 52 and living in Los Angeles. But her divorce nightmare continues more than 20 years later. She has never received a get, or Jewish divorce. Considered an agunah, or bound woman, Rachel is unable to remarry to another Jew. According to Jewish law, her ex-husband has the sole authority to grant her a Jewish divorce — something he has thus far refused to do.

“I’m much older now. There’s really no chance for me to get married again even if I do get a Jewish divorce,” Rachel said.

Cases like Rachel’s inspired Persian rabbis in Los Angeles and New York to embrace the use of legally binding premarital agreements that will allow women to obtain a get, even in cases where husbands are not willing to grant one. Adopted earlier this year, the contract is the result of years of lobbying on the part of Persian Jewish women who want parity between their community and the American Orthodox community.

“Since I was aware of this problem, from a long time ago, I always felt it was my mission, as an Iranian Jewish woman, to make Iranian Jewish brides aware of what they were signing in the ketubah,” said Dr. Nahid Pirnazar of the Los Angeles-based Iranian Jewish Women’s Organization.

“Our community’s leaders at the Nessah Cultural and Educational Center, Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center, the Iranian-American Jewish Federation and the Persian Jewish media have been very supportive in giving the community awareness of this agreement,” she said.

But the new agreement doesn’t just look out for women. Trapped men are also included.

The agreement, a new concept for the Iranian Jewish community, allows a religious panel to intervene in cases where a marriage has been dissolved in a civil court but the religious divorce is being purposefully sidelined by a spouse. The panel will review each case, and, if deemed necessary, can impose an adjustable fine of $150 per day on a husband who refuses to give his wife a get or to a wife who refuses to accept the get.

Pirnazar said she and her counterpart, Parvaneh Doostan Sarraf of the Ima Cultural Association in New York, had lobbied Iranian Jewish religious leaders over the last four years to adopt a measure similar to the premarital agreements that have been used by the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America over the last 10 years.

“The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Beth Din of America were most cooperative in offering a revised reciprocal version [of the agreement] so that it would be more acceptable to Iranian Jewish values,” Pirnazar said.Beverly Hills family attorney Alexandra Leichter also served as a legal adviser to the Iranian Jewish women’s groups in helping to adjust the current agreement to meet the criteria of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the Iranian Jewish community’s norms, Pirnazar said.

Over the centuries, rabbis in Iran very rarely granted a get unless there were issues of infidelity, infertility or a husband’s failure to fulfill his martial obligations, according to an article by Pirnazar published in the book, Padyavand, by Amnon Netzer (Mazda Publishers, 1996). In instances where a husband refused to consent to a get and there was not chance of salvaging the marriage, religious leaders in Iran would try to work within the community to persuade the husband to agree to the divorce.

The late rabbi of the Iranian community, Hacham Yedidiah Shofet, is quoted in the article, recalling only two rare occasions where rabbis in Iran granted agunot divorces when the husbands had disappeared and had not been heard from in many years.

Local Iranian rabbis said they were optimistic about the new steps taken to help future generations of women in the community that may be left in a state of limbo because of a husband’s refusal of a get.

“This agreement will be good to help prevent future agunot, but it is not the answer to the agunah problem that has been an issue for the Jewish people for centuries,” said Rabbi David Shofet, head of the Council of Iranian Rabbis. “In Iran, as far as I remember and my father of blessed memory told me, there were not so many divorces. The rabbis tried not to give gets but tried to have the couples reconcile or get counseling from the elders.”

Rachel said she hoped that local rabbis will take measures to provide a retroactive means for agunot like herself to obtain a valid Jewish divorce without the existing barriers.

“There are a lot of Jewish women out there who are still young and can start their lives over if there is a way for them to obtain the divorce from a rabbi without having to face their spiteful husbands,” she said.

The ‘Bigamist’ Versus the ‘Agunah’

When Rabbi Hagai Batzri remarried, on Feb. 5 in Los Angeles, his first wife, Luna Batzri, still hadn’t received a get from him, a Jewish divorce.

According to Jewish law, the rabbi, 41, is now married to two women at the same time, and Luna, 36, seems to be in the unfortunate position of being an agunah, literally a “chained woman,” unable to remarry.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of agunot around the world, and they face numerous emotional and practical obstacles. Not only can these women not remarry, but Jewish law dictates that a child born to an agunah can never marry a Jew, and her offspring and subsequent generations cannot marry Jews, either. Forever.

Reports on the Batzri case have prompted outrage in Israel and in Los Angeles, both because Hagai is from a prestigious religious family in Jerusalem and because Luna is seen as yet one more victim of the inequities between Orthodox men and women.

But as is often the case with divorce, there are complications in the story of this young couple who were once leaders of a Sephardic synagogue and schooling center in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Although the characters in this Los Angeles-Israel drama fit into stereotypical roles — the “poor wife,” aggrieved by her “powerful religious husband” and by the “evil rabbinical courts” — there is another side to the tale.

Hagai and Luna Batzri each agreed to give The Jewish Journal a personal perspective on their situation. It was the first such interview for Hagai; Luna’s story has been previously told in the Hebrew press, both in Israel and Los Angeles. Paired with Hagai’s version, along with accounts from other rabbis involved in the case, a nuanced picture emerges and raises questions: Is Luna Batzri a victim of religious law biased against woman, or is she also perhaps a victim of her own decisions in the course of a bitter divorce? For his part, is Hagai Batzri a victim of an unforgiving wife or is he a man who has unfeelingly bent the rules of Jewish law in his favor and against his wife?

Hagai and Luna Batzri were introduced to one another by their aunts in Jersualem in 1988. He was 23, from a prestigious ultra-Orthodox family (his father is the head of the Jerusalem Court); she was 16, in the army and from a religious Zionist family (her father owns a profitable construction company). Within a few months they married and moved to Los Angeles, where Hagai had been living.

After working in various businesses, Hagai studied for the rabbinate. In the late 1990s, the couple founded the Orthodox Sephardic synagogue Hashalom in L.A.’s Pico-Robertson neighborhood, serving 150 people of Israeli, French, Persian, Iraqi and Middle Eastern backgrounds. They also created the Talmud Torah, an afterschool Hebrew studies program for public school kids ages 6-12, with an enrollment that grew to 220 students.

“Everyone was together, it was like a family there,” said an Israeli shul member who was a close friend of the couple and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They looked like the perfect couple. He was a good rabbi. She was giving shiurim [religious classes]. He was always complimenting her.”

But the marriage was “up and down,” Luna said. Over their 15 years of marriage, she said, “we almost got divorced four times,” but they managed to patch things up for the sake of their community and for their teenage son. By August 2003, though, they couldn’t hold it together. The couple began to talk divorce.

At first their parting seemed to proceed as amicably as could be hoped for, Luna said. They went to mediation at Jewish Family Service to avoid the courts.

“You know, even though we were doing something very hard, it’s possible to finish it in a proper way and make it a Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of the name of God, she said.

Over the next few months, Luna said they came to an agreement about sharing custody of their son and dividing their assets, including the synagogue and the school. She said she wanted to finish everything before she went to the beit din, the rabbinical court, to obtain her Jewish divorce.

“You know, when you start you think everything is going to be nice, with good will. But when it comes down to it, no one is going to be handing out candies,” Luna said, using an Israeli expression meaning that it won’t be easy.

After Passover 2004, the Batzris were set to go to the beit din with their agreement to receive their get. And that was when the trouble began.

According to Jewish law, a man and a woman must obtain a rabbinic dissolution of marriage in a beit din. If one of the parties does not accept the get, the court issues a contract of refusal to the recalcitrant party. But the procedure differs for a man and a woman: The man can take this contract and then, with the permission of 100 rabbis, can dissolve the marriage. The woman, however, even in the face of a recalcitrant husband, can do no such thing.

Although many reputable Jewish courts and rabbis shy away from issuing or aiding in the 100-rabbi dispensation, the fact that it’s possible for the husband to obtain a religious divorce — though it can cost thousands of dollars — creates an imbalance. This also gives the husband greater leverage in civil court, for example, if he chooses to make his get conditional upon a better financial or custody arrangement. (A wife can also use the get as leverage, but that is riskier, because her husband can dissolve the marriage without her.)

There are less savory methods for a woman to obtain her husband’s get: Stories abound of “Sopranos”-like pressure being applied to a recalcitrant husband until he acquiesces. This is not common, however, and only happens in very religious, tight communities. Women can also publicly embarrass their husbands until they submit.

In the last 20 years, Jewish feminist organizations have enlisted the community to help solve the problem of agunot. In 1992, the state of New York added an amendment to domestic-relations law known as “The Get law,” which says that if a party refuses to remove a barrier to the other person’s ability to get married, the court can award more property to the person who was thwarted. There’s no such law in California or elsewhere.

For its part, the Rabbincal Council of America, the Orthodox board of rabbis, has adopted a prenuptial agreement that, in the case of divorce, binds both parties to arbitration of the beit din and can force the beit din to follow the property laws of the United States.

It is unclear how many agunot there are in America today, in part because rabbis and activists define the term differently: Rabbis define it narrowly as any woman who cannot obtain a get; activists say any woman who is forced to take a get under duress — and accept a compromised financial or custody settlement in civil court — is an agunah.

Luna Batzri says that right before the divorcing couple was set to go to the beit din, Hagai suddenly asked her for money, and she refused. He then had her locked out of the school, she said, prompting her to go to civil court to clarify their exact financial assets and prevent him from taking the half portion that is legally hers according to California’s communal-property law. According to Luna, for the next two years, as the civil court proceedings continued — and a civil divorce was granted despite the settlement battles — Hagai demanded that if Luna wanted a get, she would have to move all of her civil claims to a beit din, which is considered a binding arbitrator in the United States Court system.

Luna refused to move her claims to religious court.

“When a woman gets married, she knows she’s going into a jail — it’s up to the husband’s good will,” Luna said. “If he decides to be nice, then you’re OK. Otherwise you’re stuck.”

Hagai Batzri tells a different story.

“I never asked her for money,” he said.

Over the last month Hagai remained silent as Luna took her case to the media in Israel. Hagai said he didn’t react to avoid embarrassment to his family’s name. He changed his mind to set the record straight on matters he would have preferred to remain private.

“I wanted to give her a get without any preconditions,” Hagai told The Journal by telephone from his Beverly Hills home, which he shares with his new wife and his son. (Although Luna and Hagai share custody, their son lives with his father). “But she didn’t want to accept it.”

Hagai claims Luna had been unfaithful but never wanted the divorce, which she denies, accusing him, in turn, of the same offenses. Hagai said she wants to ruin him.

“She had the power to destroy me and she destroyed everything,” he said. “I lost everything — my community, my school. I have no car. I have no house. I only have debt.”

Rabbis involved in the case support Hagai’s claim that at first his conditions for the get were not linked to moving all civil claims to religious court.

“Somehow, she believed that she had a better advantage in civil court,” said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbincal Council of California (RCC), which oversees the main Jewish religious court in the state and handles between 80 and 100 Jewish divorces a year.

“She looks like she’s stuck even though she’s not,” Union said.

It’s hard to determine how much money is at stake in Batzri vs. Batzri; the three-volume civil court record suggests that the amount could range from $0 to $800,000. Luna declines to discuss figures, and Hagai claims his money has been consumed by legal fees. (The original lawyers for both sides have left the case and were unavailable for comment.) Hagai was recently held in contempt of court for not paying spousal and child support — thousands of dollars a month — and performed community service in lieu of jail time.

As the legal battles continued in civil court, Hagai made the get conditional upon Luna’s removing all claims from civil court. And the rabbis couldn’t argue with that, because that is his right.

“Halacha says you can’t litigate in court,” Union said, using the Hebrew word for the body of Jewish law. “If you’re not an Orthodox Jew, I can accept someone saying that they’re not going to be bound by a Torah they don’t believe in. But if you profess to be a Torah-observant Jew, how can you want it any other way?”

Agunah experts disagree.

“No woman in her right mind should go to the beit din to deal with anything but the get,” said Alexandra Leichter, a Los Angeles divorce attorney knowledgeable on Jewish divorce.

Based on her experience as counsel and consultant in hundreds of divorce cases, she said that religious laws favor the man when it comes to property, spousal support and custody. As a legally recognized arbitrating authority, the beit din’s rulings are binding, except on matters of child custody, although sometimes even its custody rulings are upheld by the secular court.

Union said that the beit din does not deserve its reputation among some for favoring men.

“It’s an unfair perception — this attitude that the rabbis are always going to find for the husband,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to combat.” He cannot disclose particulars, he said, but women often do better in beit din than they would in civil court.

Regardless of what led to the impasse, Hagai ultimately wanted an end to litigation in civil court and to deal with the entire case in beit din, and Luna refused to bring all financial matters to the religious court.

“I’m supposed to get my get no matter what,” Luna said.

A standoff like this could have lasted for years, especially given that the RCC does not issue the permission of 100 rabbis. But Hagai took an unusual step, one that confounded and upset many rabbis and others in the Jewish community. He asked the beit din to write a letter stating that Luna refused to appear in court. Union complied, writing that Luna “refused to come to the court and receive a get.”

Union said his letter was intended just to document the facts, not as an official rabbinical document calling her recalcitrant.

Luna said Union knew what he was doing and was a party to her ultimate betrayal — the remarriage of her husband.

Hagai took Union’s letter to Rabbi Moshe Ben Zaken, a well-known Sephardic rabbi, who sent Luna three more summons to appear before his own beit din, a religious court with an address listed in Beverly Hills. Zaken’s beit din, unlike the one run by the RCC, is not recognized by religious authorities in Israel. After Luna refused to show up, Ben Zaken, basing his decision on Union’s letter, issued a statement allowing Hagai to remarry.

To be sure, Hagai received the permission of one rabbi, not 100, as required by Jewish law. However, Ben Zaken asserts that Sephardim are not subject to the rule because, in fact, Sephardic men are allowed to take more than one wife at a time. The Torah stipulates a man may take two wives. In the year 1000, however, Rabbi Gershom Ben Judah forbade this, a prohibition that was not upheld by Sephardim. Today, Sephardim practice monogamy out of custom and out of respect for the laws of their home countries, but Ben Zaken maintains they are not bound by it.

Ben Zaken’s permission for Hagai to remarry has enraged many in the Sephardic community here.

“We tried to represent the community as an honest, modern ethical Sephardic world,” said Rabbi Danny Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, who, like many rabbis, had never heard of this halachic ruling being applied before. “It unfortunately does a lot of damage to the Sephardic community.”

Nevertheless, Hagai Batzri found a way around the impasse. He could remarry. And he didn’t even have to give his first wife a get.

As things stand, Hagai Batzri is legally remarried, according to both civil and Jewish law.

“No one is suggesting that his new marriage is not valid,” said Union, who insists he was an unwitting accomplice to a halachic chicanery of which he does not approve.

And Luna Batzri might be worse off than ever, because the one piece of leverage she had over her husband — preventing him from remarrying — is gone.

But the situation is far from over. Luna swears she will fight on, in the court and in the court of public opinion. In the last few weeks she has plastered Los Angeles shuls and kosher markets with signs criticizing Hagai; she has berated rabbis for allowing him into their synagogues; and she has enlisted feminist and rabbinical organizations in her cause.

“I know that whatever I did was 100 percent right. I don’t have any doubt about this divorce,” Luna said.

She plans to make him pay for putting her in a virtual prison as an agunah.

“If he’s going to put me in a jail, I’m going to put him in jail, too,” she said, by filing contempt cases for not paying support. (The next hearing is set for April). The only way out, she said, is for Hagai to consent to an unconditional get.

But Hagai said he won’t give in: “After all the damage she has caused me, going to the media and making me into the me’agen [one who imprisons his wife] now she will have to go to rabbinical court, and they will be the judges.”

Los Angeles rabbis have met to discuss how to proceed — but have not decided on any course of action.

“It’s at a standstill. Someone’s going to have to budge,” Union said. “You have the irresistible force and the immovable object.”

Among those concerned is Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox congregation B’nai David-Judea, who spoke about the Batzri case last week at Shabbat morning services at his synagogue. Kanefsky summed up his argument in an interview with The Journal: “The transcendent point — the only point here — is that remarriage without an unconditional get being made available is a precedent that as a community we should not tolerate, because it leads to very bad things.”