The Human Spirit: We owe an apology

As their husbands have refused to grant these women divorces, their lives have been put on hold for decades.

Divorce 521 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Divorce 521
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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 divorce.
Epstein is an American who lives in Philadelphia. In the Diaspora there are also hundreds of women chained to recalcitrant husbands.
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 already gathering.
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 40.
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 remarry.
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.
IN 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 Jewish law.
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 jails.
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 hashem, 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.
Please join 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.