As we get busy with individual stock-taking for the Hebrew month of Elul, let’s
not overlook the sins we share as the Jewish people. For instance, both Tikva
Hamami and Tamar Epstein deserve an apology and redress from the Jewish people.
If their lives mattered enough to us, we would have found a solution to the
shameful practice of “chained” women.
Hamami (not her real name) is an
Israeli. Jurisdiction over her attempts to obtain freedom thus lies with the
Rabbinical Courts in Israel, where there are hundreds of cases of agunot, or
“chained” women, whose husbands refuse to give them a Jewish
Epstein is an American who lives in Philadelphia. In the
Diaspora there are also hundreds of women chained to recalcitrant
Hamami lived with her husband – let’s call him Ze’ev – for
three months. Epstein lived with her husband, whose name is Aharon Friedman, for
just under two years. So how did Hamami, a devout religious woman, marry someone
so unsuited to her? Blame it on naiveté, social pressure, attraction to
grandiose behavior. Maybe her usually protective family was distracted by her
father’s incarceration for espionage in Iran. She was 24, new in the country.
She’s a pharmacist, and a well-meaning matchmaker introduced her to a fellow
Persian Jew, a yeshiva student and architect who had the means to provide her
with a beautiful and loving home.
Looking back, the storm clouds were
Hamami has had plenty of time since to analyze the
short courtship and subsequent marriage to a man who choked her, kicked her
pregnant belly, and starved her. Sixteen years. That’s how long she’s been an
aguna. After three months of abuse she went back to live with her mother, and
began what she assumed would be a reasonable divorce process. Now she’s
Tamar Epstein was also 24 when she married Aharon Friedman. It
sounded like a promising union.
Epstein is a Stern College graduate and a
nurse. Friedman is seven years older, a Harvard graduate lawyer from Brooklyn.
While Hamami’s husband’s professional credentials and financial resources turned
out to be fantasy, Friedman does indeed have a prestigious job as a tax
consultant for Republican Congressman David Camp, who heads the Ways and Means
Committee of the United States Congress.
Epstein and Friedman stood under
the wedding canopy in 2006, followed by toasts quoting the well-known Talmudic
pronouncement that every man’s ideal mate is announced in heaven 40 days before
he’s born. Marriage, we like to say, is a reunion of preordained soul mates. The
Epstein-Friedman marriage wasn’t soulful. Epstein soon realized she’d made a
terrible mistake. Attempts to improve the marriage failed. According to Epstein,
their already bad marriage deteriorated after she got pregnant, and got still
worse still after she gave birth to a daughter. Epstein, like Hamami, moved back
to the safety and sanity of her parents’ home.
In civil court, the couple
reached a divorce settlement in 2010. At Friedman’s request, child visitation
was determined there as well. But Friedman has refused to give Epstein a Jewish
writ of divorce, a get, without which this young woman will never be able to
In Israel the first eight years passed as the rabbinic courts
refused to take the step of obligating Ze’ev Hamami to divorce his wife. Such a
decision allows the court to attempt to convince a recalcitrant spouse to change
his/her mind by sitting in jail, having professional licenses suspended, and
losing synagogue privileges. In 2005, with the help of the Center for Women’s
Justice (CWJ) – an organization which has initiated the practice of suing
recalcitrant husbands for damages (torts) to establish legal certainty that get
refusal is a civil wrong – Tikva Hamami sued Ze’ev for damages in the Tel Aviv
Family Court. In December 2008, Judge Tova Sivan awarded Tikva Hamami $700,000
for the suffering her husband had caused her by not giving her a writ of
divorce. According to CWJ founder Susan Weiss, in 65 percent of cases in which
the center wins a judgment of damages, the divorce follows swiftly.
THE US, Tamar Epstein initially tried a quiet path to the resolution of her
problem. She spoke to rabbis close to her ex-husband. The rabbis implored him to
issue a get. Tamar’s father was dying of cancer, and his final wish was to see
his daughter freed. When Friedman brushed off the rabbis, Epstein went public,
using the methods that have been successful in some Jewish communities.
Demonstrators gathered outside Friedman’s family house and the White House. The
Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US and Canada issued a “final warning” to
Friedman to grant a divorce. His religious community in Washington has reputedly
shunned him. The congressman for whom he works was asked to intervene. There
have been campaigns in social media and the high-profile case has been reported
in The New York Times
In Israel, Hamami can’t remarry, but in the US,
nothing would stop Epstein from remarrying in a civil ceremony. She has a civil
divorce. If she approached a Conservative rabbinic court, the marriage could be
dissolved within that movement’s understanding of Halacha. Neither of these is
an option for Epstein, who is a deeply committed Orthodox Jew. As she points
out, get-refusal punishes those who adhere to (Orthodox interpretations) of
PLEASE DO not write me about the “good old days” when
get-refusers were thrashed by community thugs until they changed their minds.
You can be arrested for assault and battery in the modern world. Yes, there was
an episode of The Sopranos
in which Tony Soprano and his team came to the rescue
of an aguna.
I wouldn’t count on the mafia. And yes, women can be
get-refusers, too. Both refusal to issue or accept a get is a form of abuse. But
we all know that most of victims are women. Please don’t suggest that get
refusal is a legitimate means of redressing supposed wrongs in child visitation
hearings. Child visitation is determined by external experts whose aim is to
protect the children.
Of all places to discuss these topics, I am doing
so at a wedding with the Honorable Rachel Levmore, the first woman to serve on
the Get Committee of the Israeli Rabbinate at a Jerusalem wedding. Levmore has
won kudos around the world for her understanding of the Halacha and the process,
coming up with solutions for women chained by criminals inside and outside of
Between celebratory circle dances, I ask Levmore for the bottom
line. Why would men like Ze’ev Hamami and Aharon Friedman hold on? Their
personal lives are also suspended, (although in some cases men father children
with other women or get 100 rabbis to override the rabbinical court). But Aharon
Friedman – a public figure – knows his name has become synonymous with hilul
, blaspheming God’s name. Why do they do it? Levmore’s answer is simple:
Because they can.
I fully support the work of the CWJ. I sit as a
volunteer on their board. Every person who causes anguish by refusing to issue
or accept a get needs to pay major damages. I also praise the work of ORA, the
American-based Organization for Resolution of Agunot, which is bringing Tamar
Epstein’s plight to the public consciousness. But do we really want to make
peace with a system in which extortion is a norm? In a divorce system in which
victims of getrefusal have to turn to Civil Court for damages, or to march with
signs in front of the White House? Do we want to be the mocked subject of
Sopranos episodes and to have Halacha referred to as “Jewish folklore” in
top-tier media? WE ARE a people that has found loopholes to deal with
prohibitions on money-lending, with not tossing out the whiskey on Passover,
with not living in the Land of Israel. When are we going to provide the social
pressure to change the make-up of the rabbinic courts and solve this issue? When
we give our donations this holiday season, we can make them conditional on the
rabbis and institutions we want to support challenging the current system. If
not, we are collaborators.
Says CWJ’s Susan Weiss: The solutions are
here, but something else is going on, something symbolic that we can’t give up –
control over the other, the body, the soul.
That’s what this month is
about: refining our souls.
Despite all of the efforts on their behalf, as
we prepare for the Jewish year 5773, neither Hamami nor Epstein has received her
Jewish writ of divorce.
Hamami has given up hope of freeing herself,
remarrying and having more children. She expects to die as the wife or widow of
the man she made the error of marrying. Remarkably, she remains a committed,
extremely religious Jew and is bringing up her 15- year-old son as a
Torah-observant young man.
Epstein is still hopeful.
me in putting this issue on your teshuva
list and doing something about
it.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.