The Human Spirit: Free at last, but how?

"Tamar 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."

TelAviv wedding (photo credit: Nomi Yogev)
TelAviv wedding
(photo credit: Nomi Yogev)
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 friend abroad.
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 life.
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 David Camp.
Tamar Epstein, a nurse and graduate of Stern College, was 24 in 2006 when she married Friedman, 31, a Harvard Law School graduate from Brooklyn.
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.
Epstein, who 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 divorce.
What had finally convinced Friedman to change his mind? On Facebook and in the Jewish blogosphere, writers speculated.
And then sources close to Friedman denied that he had granted a get.
The only 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 wife.
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 marriage.
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.
NO 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 resolved.
“Rachel” in New Jersey was free, too.
Rachel’s story, according to the Rackman Center: From an American religious family, Rachel married an Israeli when she was 18 and went to live in Israel.
When she 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 freedom.
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 demands.
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 fixing now.
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.