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.”

Al Qaeda urges Israel attacks; Israeli Arab lawmakers represent Hamas in court

Al Qaeda Urges Israel Attacks

Gaza Plan Foes Face Evangelical Aid Loss

With the Gaza disengagement plan picking up momentum and
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon getting set to pitch the proposal to the Bush
administration at Camp David next week, right-wing Jewish groups are
counterattacking, hoping to forestall U.S. support for the plan. Their partners
in this fight: Christian Zionists.

It’s easy to see why the Jewish hawks have turned to the
evangelicals, but in the end, they’re almost certain to be disappointed. While
major figures in the evangelical movement do, indeed, share the anger Israel’s
settlers feel at this “betrayal” of their cause, they are unlikely to come
through in the clinch.

And the reasons offer a cautionary tale about the depth of a
new alliance that may be more talk than action.

The Bush administration is moving cautiously toward
conditional support of the Gaza plan, which officials here hope will reduce
tensions in the region and ultimately lead to a resumption of some kind of
peace process, and it’s unlikely the Christian Zionists can stop them or even
that they will expend much energy trying.

True, many of these groups seem to be in lockstep with
right-wing members of Sharon’s Cabinet who are already waging open warfare
against his dramatic plan and threatening to bring down his government.

To many of the evangelicals, Gaza and the West Bank are part
of the biblical bequest to Israel, although their views of scriptural promises
have some big differences from the Jewish view — starting with the whole Second
Coming thing.

Some evangelicals have already been on Capitol Hill, working
with House conservatives to generate pressure against any White House
endorsement of the plan. But opponents will be making a big mistake if they
expect more than a few gestures.

The 2004 presidential election is turning into a watershed
for the religious right, and it has almost nothing to do with Israel. Despite
periodic complaints from that sector, President Bush has done more to advance
the conservative Christian agenda than any of his predecessors.

He has made sweeping changes in federal rules limiting
government grants to overtly religious groups, and born-again Christian social
service providers have been by far the biggest beneficiaries. He has presided
over passage of the first federal school vouchers program; he has appointed
dozens of strongly anti-abortion judges to the federal bench and signed
critical anti-abortion legislation.

And he has brought a faith-based style to politics that has
warmed the hearts of evangelicals.

Domestically, these groups have made unprecedented gains
since 2001, and they are poised to make even greater ones if Bush is reelected
and Congress turns even more Republican. That scenario, which liberals regard
as their own personal version of the apocalypse, could include a radical
transformation of the Supreme Court, an overturning of Roe vs. Wade and support
for the anti-gay rights agenda.

The Christians may be upset about the Gaza plan, but they
are unlikely to jeopardize any of their recent domestic gains and the ones to
come by taking on an administration that is sympathetic to most of their
priorities. And despite threats to the contrary, few evangelical voters are
likely to sit out the 2004 election if Bush endorses the Gaza plan and helps
Sharon implement it.

Some of Israel’s top nationalists, including Tourism
Minister Benny Elon, have developed strong working relations with many
evangelical leaders. But that new connection does not outweigh this community’s
core political issues.

That explains why some key evangelical leaders, while
expressing concern about the Gaza plan, have refrained from directly fighting

The same dynamic holds with the congressional conservatives
who have aligned themselves with the Israeli far right. Leaders like Rep. Tom
DeLay (R-Texas), the House majority leader and the top religious right
supporter on Capitol Hill, have been quick to express solidarity with Israeli
hardliners and their friends here, but they have been loathe to take on the

These lawmakers breathe fire when they appear before hawkish
Jewish groups, but they haven’t shown the slightest inclination to aggressively
challenge their friend in the White House — their partner in forging a domestic
political revolution.

For both conservative lawmakers and the Christian Zionists,
growing support for Israel may be a blend of political opportunism, genuine
support for Israel and maybe a touch of biblical prophecy. But it won’t trump
their domestic concerns, and the administration knows it, which is why, for all
their complaints, the Christian Zionists haven’t really affected the
administration’s Mideast policy.

Two years ago, Bush became the first president to openly
support Palestinian statehood, despite objections from this quarter; he
continued to promote his Mideast “road map” to peace, even though they hated
it. The Christian Zionists have become the biggest U.S. cheerleaders for the
Israeli settlers movement, but that hasn’t stopped the Bush administration from
terming settlements “unhelpful” or demanding their removal.

And if Sharon can convince Bush that his Gaza disengagement
plan won’t forestall further movement toward a Palestinian state and a
negotiated settlement, the U.S. administration is likely to sign on the dotted
line — despite protests from the Christian right, which are likely to be more
rhetorical than real.