A voice in the wilderness

An exclusive interview with Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a towering figure in religious Orthodoxy in the US who has sought to find solutions to ‘agunot’ by way of a rabbinical court he helped found in 2014.

A scene from the movie ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,’ whose portrait of ‘callous rabbis’ Krauss found painful – and true (photo credit: YOUTUBE)
A scene from the movie ‘Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,’ whose portrait of ‘callous rabbis’ Krauss found painful – and true
(photo credit: YOUTUBE)
Rabbi Simcha Krauss admits he’s not a great movie buff.
But he did see a movie in 2014 that struck a chord.
The Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem portrays the life of Amsalem, who has been attempting to obtain from her husband a religious divorce agreement, called a get. Due to his refusal, she is unable to remarry or be free of the marriage.
“I’m not a big maven of films,” recounts Krauss in a phone interview with In Jerusalem. “I can say it was surrealistic, the image of the callous rabbis. Unfortunately, it was [also] very true, and I say it with a lot of pain about that image of callousness.”
The rabbi has a passion. After many decades as a religious figure in Orthodox circles in the US and Israel, he wants to shine his expertise on the pain and suffering inflicted on agunot, “chained” or “anchored” women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get.
He sees in the current process, where women wait years and husbands extort them for money, a kind of injustice.
“The same women come back in seven or nine months, and the years creep by and the women’s biological clocks are ticking, and it will take a long time,” he says.
What if there were a better way, a faster way? Krauss’s story didn’t begin with being an expert on gittin (divorce documents).
Born in Romania, he came to America as a boy with his family in 1948. The 200,000-person Jewish community of southern Transylvania had been saved from the ravages of the Holocaust, and Krauss’s father, a rabbi, sought out the US to raise his children.
In New York, Krauss attended the Chasam Sofer Yeshiva and received his ordination from Yeshivat Chaim Berlin, now housed in a stately brick building on Brooklyn’s Avenue I. As his father was situated in Washington Heights, though, he would listen to the shiurim (lessons) of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University.
“I never enrolled at Yeshiva University,” the rabbi recalls, “but through osmosis I was hooked on his [Soloveitchik’s] shiur when I heard it. I went and then I developed a relationship with him.”
Krauss moved on to obtain a masters degree from the New School of Social Research at City College, and then, during the heady days of the late 1960s, served as a rabbi upstate in Utica.
Later, for 11 years, he was rabbi of the Young Israel of St. Louis, and for 25 years served as leader of the Young Israel of Hillcrest, back in New York City. He also spent time at the head of the Religious Zionists of America. In 2005, he made aliya.
“We always wanted to go on aliya,” he says. “I was invited to teach at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, located in Katamon [in Jerusalem].”
For almost a decade, Krauss was situated in that bucolic neighborhood, working with mostly English speakers.
“I was successful there, and then I was invited to sit on the International Beit Din,” he says, referring to a 2014 initiative aimed at establishing a rabbinical court that could obtain relief for agunot.
THE STATUS of aguna leaves a woman unable to remarry in a Jewish marriage, and if she remarries in a civil marriage, it labels any child born from the union a mamzer, or illegitimate. In many cases, husbands abuse the religious principles involved, demanding money to grant a get.
When Krauss came to head the religious court, he was stepping into a well-known minefield.
Experts note that the issue pits more conservative Orthodox forces against those who would like a reform in Halacha.
He initially encountered the issue of gittin during his work in St. Louis.
“I learned a lot about it; I learned what an aguna was because I saw it in the flesh,” he says.
Later, in Hillcrest, he led a congregation of 550 families. Some had daughters or sisters who were agunot.
“They came and I would work the old-fashioned way, speaking to the husband, and it gave me a real taste of it,” he recalls.
While teaching one class per semester at Yeshiva University, he had time to think more about the issue.
The problem, he says, is that Judaism is not against divorce, per se. What’s more, “according to some, it is even a mitzva if they are separated.” But Halacha is clear on the matter that the person who creates the marriage has the power to break it – and the husband is considered the creator of the union, and it is the woman who consents.
“So technically, he must free his wife,” he explains.
Krauss casts his gaze back to the period before 1939.
“Up to then, there were difficult cases, mostly related to people who were lost at sea or at war.”
It was a time when rabbis had to deal with husbands who likely were dead, and how their wives could obtain a get.
There was, he says, recalcitrance, “but not like today,” where the husband says to his wife that “he won’t give a get unless he gets $200,000 or a million.”
Jewish law, he details, never considered this eventuality.
“We were frozen into thinking that the only thing that will work is extortion,” he says. “That is a distortion of Halacha, and Halacha never wanted that. Technically, there are scholars who hold that those who give the get only for money [nullify it], and it tramples on the women’s rights and dignity, and on the Torah’s rights and dignity.”
KRAUSS AND his beit din – located in Riverdale, New York, but working with people all over the world – seeks to provide answers. One of the solutions they found was kiddushei ta’ot, a form of invalidating or voiding the marriage by proving that the union was based on deception or mistakes.
“A woman comes to us after seven years [of waiting for a get],” he relates, referring to a relatively simple case. “So let’s say she has a video [of the wedding] and we don’t see witnesses and we don’t see kosher witnesses. [A Jewish marriage must have two witnesses.] One wedding had 32 guests and we identified all of them... but where were the witnesses?” The beit din came to the conclusion that there were no witnesses, so it annulled the marriage.
Krauss describes an embedded culture of obdurate teaching arguing that Halacha must follow a more harsh culture of humra (stringency). But he says there are other ways to unravel a wedding that was based on deception.
“Let’s say the husband had a psychological [issue] and we go to psychologists and family psychiatrists, and the health care professionals verify that there was a sickness that preceded the wedding, and he didn’t tell the woman,” he says. “That’s deception.”
A problem the International Beit Din runs into is that the Jewish religious world is afraid of a “slippery slope.”
In one case, Krauss recalls a woman who married a young man rumored to be a great scholar of the Talmud, but who was actually “a pimp and a drug dealer and a money launderer.”
Even though many senior rabbis in Israel agreed that there had been deception, they didn’t want to invalidate the w e d d i n g because of the so-called slippery slope. So after three years, the woman’s father paid the husband $2 million for a get, although the woman immediately realized she was a victim of deceit.
“It’s not about Halacha; it’s because people are afraid to change the culture,” Krauss argues.
Other cases are more strange.
A woman married a man who committed suicide soon after the marriage.
They had no children, and according to Jewish law, she therefore was obligated to wed her husband’s brother in a form of marriage called yibbum, or renounce him through a symbolic act called haliza.
But the brother was only five years old.
“Was she required to wait until he turned 13?” asks Krauss.
This case, from the 1970s, was brought before the world-renowned Torah scholar Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who determined that he would void the original marriage because of the husband’s propensity to commit suicide. Had the wife known of this, he reasoned, she would not have married him in the first place.
Why does a case from the 1970s matter today? According to Krauss, the decision on this particular case was not published in a compendium of rabbinical rulings in Israel.
“They couldn’t find it,” he says.
“They wanted that tshuva [responsa from Feinstein], and they said it exists but they wouldn’t publish it.”
The logic? Avoid the slippery slope – Feinstein might have been correct in that one instance, but publishing the ruling would pave the way for similar decisions.
“We are trying to undo that culture,” Krauss affirms.
“Nobody says it as openly as I do. I am trying to do this, and my time is occupied by answering accusations.”
KRAUSS IS open about the fact that his beit din is seen as controversial.
When it began its work, it received praise, but in September, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, published an open letter criticizing him and the International Beit Din. Other rabbis have also signed on to protest the reforms.
“We are the new kid on the block and many don’t know who we are… there is a real fear,” he laments.
The fear is that using concepts like deception or ta’ot related to marriage can somehow harm marriage in general.
“What they say is that the Jewish family is holy and we must strengthen it, and by making divorce easier we are not strengthening it,” he says.
He responds that, in fact, the critics are right, marriage is holy, but it is not made holier by seeing a mother and father at each other’s throats for 50 years in an unhappy marriage. Chaining women to men who want to extort them is clearly not what Halacha had in mind, and hasn’t strengthened marriage, he explains.
Krauss and other members of his beit din are pushing forward. With hundreds of agunot in the US, and many others around the world, there is a need.
“It is not a question of when they [agunot] come. Those who come to us, we are the last [beit din they come to],” he says.
When these women come, they are received for free. Moreover, having seen what the protagonist goes through in Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, the rabbi wants to make the atmosphere “psychologically friendly.” Therefore, the beit din involves health professionals, making dealing with 10 “rabbis with big beards,” as Krauss describes the experience, more amenable.
“Some say it is a modern revolution,” he asserts. “I say that’s the way you should do it.”
Husbands sometimes come to a settlement quickly when the wife threatens to take the case to the International Beit Din. One did so in 10 days, after a long period of refusing his wife a get.
Nevertheless, the beit din is afraid that if its critics have their way, some rabbis will refuse to marry the women it frees.
“We have a website and we write the reasons [for the divorce], so objective people can see we are not ignoramuses.
No other beit din does that and gives reasons online,” Krauss stresses.
“We are open to being criticized,” he insists. “We want to be transparent.”