February 23, 2020

Is this Orthodox rabbi a feminist?

When word got out that Rabbi Simcha Krauss was coming to Los Angeles to teach a series of lessons on how to resolve the problem of agunot — women “chained” to their marriages because their husbands refuse to give them a get, or religious divorce — the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) sent a letter to the Orthodox community discouraging attendance.

Signed by the president of the RCC, the letter called into doubt the legitimacy of the International Beit Din (IBD) Krauss founded in 2014, in Riverdale, N.Y., calling the court’s decisions on agunot “non-halachic” and “invalid.” 

 “Rabbanim are advised to warn prospective applicants to this ‘International Beit Din’ that recognized Batei Din throughout the United States do not accept the IBD piskei din and the gravity of what that implies,” the RCC’s letter stated, referring to judgments of a religious court.

The campaign against Krauss and his Beit Din has played out both in the press and behind closed doors since the court’s inception, and reveals a larger power struggle within the Orthodox community between the prevailing establishment and the emergence of progressive voices and practices. Although not openly stated, the hushed subtext of this internecine conflict has everything to do with the rights and roles of women in Orthodox Judaism.  

Just over two years ago, with the backing of Charedi rabbis in Israel and Orthodox supporters in the U.S., Krauss founded the International Beit Din in order to help women circumvent a legal system in which only men have the power to grant a divorce. 

“The way Jewish law is established, because the husband is the one who creates the marriage, he is the one who has the final word about giving a get. And that can lead to a terrible misuse of Jewish law, because the get can sometimes become a whip that the husband uses over his wife,” Krauss, 79, said when I met him last week at Kehillat Yitzchak on Beverly Boulevard.

According to halachah, if a husband refuses to give a get, his wife remains anchored to the marriage and cannot remarry or have legitimate Jewish children. This imbalance of power has led to legal manipulations on the part of the husband that Krauss plainly calls “extortion” — situations in which husbands demand lump sums of money from their wives, or pressure them to surrender spousal support and/or parental rights, in exchange for a get.

 “Extortion is a falsification, a frustration, a corruption of Jewish law,” Krauss said. 

For the past 40 years, Krauss has served as a pulpit rabbi, a Religious Zionists of America leader and taught at a Jerusalem yeshiva during a decadelong stint in Israel. He speaks with the courage of his convictions, but in person has the presence of a kindly Jewish grandfather — he wears smudged spectacles and has gentle eyes. Born in Romania in the late 1930s, Krauss claims to hail from 17 generations of rabbis, which makes his progressivism even more surprising. But he insists his methods are not modern and that there are ample precedents in the Torah for helping agunot.  

 “The Gemara is full of quotations that, because of the severity of agunot, the rabbis were meikel (“lenient”) so much so with women that they put it in the category of ‘anybody who saves an agunah is involved in pikuach nefesh — saving a life.’ Which means, if I know I can help save a woman from being an agunah, by even desecrating the Shabbat, I am allowed to do it. And rabbis are on record saying that.”

In Krauss’ view, Jewish courts have failed to fairly address divorce cases in which women are held captive by their husbands — sometimes for decades. “Therefore, we came up with an idea that if you look into the history of this marriage, you can sometimes find a few entry points to find a way of permitting the woman to remarry even if [her husband] doesn’t give a get.”

The concept proposed by Krauss’ IBD essentially is the practice of annulment, which is not common in Jewish courts. The IBD will undertake a review of the circumstances of the marriage in order to determine if it is valid or invalid. Perhaps the witnesses at the wedding were not kosher, or the husband deceived his wife during courtship, failing to disclose mental illness, impotence or homosexuality.  

 “I’m not speaking to you of cases that may happen once in a million years,” Krauss said. “I’m speaking about things that are known in the literature, with precedent, that other rabbis have done — the g’dolim, the greats of the generations have done — for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.” 

So why is Krauss being treated as some rogue rabbi, out to upend Jewish tradition? Though he has the endorsement of some prominent rabbis in Israel, not a single Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. has supported him publicly. And even when he “frees” an agunah, not every rabbi will accept his decision and remarry her.

 “Generally, I think that when there is a move to change the status quo, there is always pushback,” said attorney Esther Macner, founder of the nonprofit Get Jewish Divorce. Macner helped coordinate Krauss’ five appearances in L.A. last week. “I think there’s a natural desire on the part of the established batei din to centralize and preserve their power.”

But preserving their power is linked inextricably to limiting the power of women. 

I asked Krauss if he considers himself a feminist.  

 “Would I consider myself a feminist?” he mused, a little off guard. “I don’t know. But I think that feminism has a legitimate message. I don’t think that femininsm is treif. And I don’t think that if you brush me as a feminist, I would get insulted. We have a lot to learn from all kinds of people.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.