The plight of an ‘aguna’ reaches Capitol Hill

Spotlight on Aharon Jeffrey Eric Friedman brings phenomenon of get-refusal in Jewish media all over the world and in Washington.

aaronfriedmanget (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
A 1991 resolution of the Rabbinical Council of America regarding the aguna problem, where Jewish husbands refuse to grant their wives a Jewish divorce – a get – “condemns in the strongest terms the use of a get or the withholding thereof to extract concessions from a spouse.”
This organization, the largest collection of Orthodox rabbis in the Diaspora, called upon its members to “use all means at their disposal to persuade recalcitrant spouses to agree to a get.”
Twenty years later, a number of good men and women, acting on the basis of those resolutions, have focused the spotlight on one particular man, so that the abusive phenomenon of get-refusal is resounding in the halls of Capitol Hill and on the pages of The New York Times.
Aharon Jeffrey Eric Friedman, a member of Congressman Dave Camp’s staff (Michigan) is refusing Tamar Epstein, 27, from whom he is divorced civilly, a get. Friedman’s boss is described on his own website as “the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee” and “one of the most influential policy-makers in Washington.”
A protest held outside Friedman’s home, led by Jeremy Stern of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, made a simple point – loudly and clearly: “Aharon Friedman, give Tamar a get!”
That call has echoed through the streets, and been repeated thousands of times on YouTube, reaching the American Jewish press and websites, stirring the hearts of the Jewish community and some of its rabbis.
One such rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom – the national synagogue in Washington – delivered a sermon at the end of December entitled “No Excuses for a Recalcitrant Husband.”
Encouraged by Rabbi Herschel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, who called upon Aharon to release Tamar he courageously urged all “to let Aharon’s employers know about his unethical behavior.”
The sermon was read all around the globe, courtesy of the Internet, causing some to contact the congressman’s office.
Breaking the boundaries of the Jewish world, The New York Times published the story entitled “Protesters Seek Woman’s Religious Divorce” by Mark Oppenheimer (January 4), reporting that a “rabbi took the unusual step of writing to Mr. Friedman’s employer, asking that he lean on Mr. Friedman to grant the Jewish divorce.”
It appears that Friedman, an attorney working in the upper echelons of the most powerful democracy in the world, a Jew protected and empowered as a member of a minority group by the Constitution of the US, is acting in complete disregard for the universal principles and ethics which he presumably employs. That he does so in the name of Jewish law (against the call of leading rabbis) has caused outrage among many who believe in the ethics of Judaism.
IT IS time for the guardians of Jewish law, the rabbis, to put an end to cynical manipulation of that law. This manipulation not only abuses the “daughters of Israel,” whom the rabbis are enjoined to protect, but it disabuses all people of the concept of Jewish morality. There are various tools which can be applied by rabbinic decree – for one, a prenuptial agreement for the prevention of get-refusal.
The voices of all rabbis should be raised in a chorus, intensifying the 20-year-old resolution of the RCA. Rabbis the world over should join those who speak out for Tamar, not only for her individual relief, but for principled legislation within Jewish law to bring about a global resolution of the aguna problem. How much more glaring a desecration of God’s name can the Jewish people withstand than to see Jewish law grievously distorted in the halls of the US Congress?
The writer is a rabbinical court advocate, coordinator of the Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the Council of Young Israel Rabbis and the Jewish Agency, a doctoral candidate in Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and author of Minee Einayich Medima on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal.