Free at last. Joy spread throughout the Jewish world. I heard the news, a rumor
at first, on Facebook in a private message, and then confirmed it with a knowing
No. Not Jonathan Pollard, America’s Jewish
prisoner. Not Ron Arad. Not Alan Phillip Gross (remember him?), Cuba’s
Jewish prisoner – an American Jew serving a 15- year sentence for supposed
spying. No, not Russia’s Jewish prisoner, oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Indeed,
he’s free, too. The message was about Tamar Epstein. Free. Free of
her ex-husband. Free to marry if she wishes. Free to go on with her
Epstein was until recently called the world’s most famous aguna – a
term used loosely to describe a woman whose husband refuses to give her a get, a
Jewish writ of divorce. The correct term is actually mesurevet get, one who is
refused a Jewish divorce document. A true aguna’s husband can’t be found, lost
at sea or missing in battle. Epstein’s ex-husband, Aharon Friedman, is very much
present. You can find him in Washington, DC, where he’s an aide to Congressman
Tamar Epstein, a nurse and graduate of Stern College, was 24
in 2006 when she married Friedman, 31, a Harvard Law School graduate from
Soon after the wedding, their relationship soured. According to
Epstein, their already bad marriage deteriorated further after she got pregnant,
and got still worse after she gave birth to a daughter. She moved back to the
safety and sanity of her parents’ home in Philadelphia. She and Friedman agreed
to end their marriage, and received a civil divorce in 2010.
was then 28, is a devout Jew and wanted a Jewish divorce, too. Friedman
wasn’t giving her one. Her home community of Orthodox Jews supported her, as did
people around the world. Epstein’s physician father was dying of cancer and
wanted to see his daughter freed. Friedman wouldn’t budge. The Michigan
congressman didn’t want to get involved.
Then last week, the
American-based Organization for Resolution for Agunot, ORA, which had
spearheaded the campaign to free Epstein, issued a flyer and fund-raising call
to celebrate Epstein’s gaining her freedom.
That led to the assumption
that the lawyer and congressional aide had finally issued a writ of
What had finally convinced Friedman to change his mind? On
Facebook and in the Jewish blogosphere, writers speculated.
sources close to Friedman denied that he had granted a get.
other option had to be that the scholarly and devout members of an Orthodox beit
din had found a way around the recalcitrant husband to free the chained
Anyone who had ever studied the basics of Jewish family law was now
speculating about how the rabbinical court had made its ruling. The dominant
guess – based on a formula used by the private rabbinical court of the late
esteemed Rabbi Emanuel Rackman – is that the court might have seen the marriage
as an error. One expert thought that prolonged get-refusal might be viewed as a
form of abuse. Since a woman wouldn’t marry a man if she knew he was abusive,
she’d married him by mistake and the court could recall the
Again, this is only speculation.
The usually vociferous
ORA is closelipped on further details. So is Epstein, and so, for that matter,
is Friedman. The rabbinical court has not made its decision public.
SOONER had the news of Epstein being freed started circulating, than Israel’s
Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for Advancement of the Status of Women, which is
part of the legal faculty of Bar-Ilan University, sent out an email notice about
another distressing, if less well-known, get-refusal case that had been
“Rachel” in New Jersey was free, too.
according to the Rackman Center: From an American religious family, Rachel
married an Israeli when she was 18 and went to live in Israel.
could no longer tolerate her husband’s abuse, she moved back to the United
States with their two small daughters. The get she was expecting never came.
That was eight years ago.
Her husband wasn’t in a hurry. He was living as
man-and-wife with another woman in Israel. Any children born to them would be
legitimate. Seven years into this process, the rabbinical court in Israel agreed
to take away the husband’s driver’s license and passport as a form of pressure
on him to free his wife. At last he agreed. If she’d bring the children to
Israel, he’d deign to divorce her. So Rachel managed to come to Israel with the
children, now aged nine and seven.
They hadn’t seen their father for
seven years. But at the end of their time in Israel, they left without the get.
Daddy had changed his mind.
The Rackman Center got involved and
petitioned the High Rabbinical Court to jail him. A month ago, he was jailed in
Israel, and last week, he agreed once again to give the get for his
According to the center’s experts, usually in international
cases like this, a messenger stands in for the divorcee, and then has to deliver
the actual document to her hand. In this case, it was feared that the obstinate
husband would renege again while the get was being transported to America. To
foil the trickster, the rabbinical court, under the leadership of Chief Rabbi
David Lau, allowed the messenger to perform the get ceremony as a full proxy,
granting an immediate divorce, without hedging it with extra
Rachel was waiting in the office of the beit din in New Jersey.
The rabbis told her, “You are free.”
“RACHEL” IS a pseudonym. This
practice of clouding details is more than a means of respecting privacy. In
every Orthodox divorce case in which more progressive rulings are made, parties
involved always fear that powerful, rigid decisors might one day have power over
the divorcee to question the validity of their divorces, or, more terrifying,
declare new children born mamzerim – a category of illegitimacy with serious
repercussions. Read some of the comments on websites speculating about the
courts in Epstein’s case to sample the bitter taste of the opposition to finding
new solutions to these problems.
The progressive rulings are encouraging
and praiseworthy. In Israel, it’s particularly pleasing to hear about the
involvement of our new chief rabbi. But imagine trying to explain this to anyone
outside the reach of Orthodox Judaism.
They might wonder why I should be
celebrating a loophole or courageous ruling in a system that holds a woman
hostage for six or eight scarred years.
As a religious Jewish woman who
believes in the sanctity of marriage and who idealizes the beauty of the huppa
(Jewish marriage canopy), it’s getting harder to make the case for young people
– who seem less inclined to marry anyway – to entangle themselves in a system
with so many dangers. In a Hebrew paper last Shabbat, I noticed three
heterosexual couples listed as “life-partners.” Two of the three had children
together. They’ve simply skipped the complications of Jewish marriage. Recently
a sabra cousin and her sabra fiancé passed on a religious wedding and married in
Cyprus, even though they qualified for registering with the rabbinical
authority. No, thank you, they said.
These are wake-up calls. The glass
under the foot of the groom isn’t the only broken part of this system. It needs
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations
for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.