18 October 2013

In defense of Rabbi Mendel Epstein

The latest rabbi-related brouhaha in US of A is somewhat exceptional: it shows total lack of understanding by some people. The story in a nutshell is this:

Three rabbis, including one who claims to have conducted more than 2,000 divorces, were arrested for allegedly pressuring Orthodox Jewish men into giving their wives religious divorces.

The investigation revealed that unhappy Orthodox Jewish wives who wanted a divorce were paying $100,000 to the rabbis. In exchange, the rabbis would facilitate divorce, frequently by hiring armed thugs kidnap the husbands and beat them until they agreed.
The methods used by the Orthodox team were certainly unorthodox:
"Mendel Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of 'tough guys' who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags of the heads of husbands," FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman said.
The greed displayed by the gang is definitely to be condemned, and it will be. However, there is another side of the story, less known to people unfamiliar with the marriage and divorce ways of Orthodox community. Shmuley Boteach in Algemeiner has got it.
Granted, the cattle-prod-to-the-nether-region gang might be taking the whole thing to an extreme. But if we’re going to condemn them – as we should – must we not propose a legal alternative? Or will we choose the safe route of condemning only the rabbis who have at least made an effort – albeit a highly illegal and violent one – to remedy the problem rather than the mercenary husbands who are responsible in the first place.

Everyone in the orthodox community knows some woman who has suffered without a get, the victim of a husband’s shakedown or abuse. Maybe he used the get to obtain custody of the kids or to minimize his alimony payments. Perhaps his intention was making his wife’s life as miserable as he feels his is. But one way or another, he used Jewish law in a manner it was never meant to be used, namely to blackmail a woman.

And the rabbis watch and do next-to-nothing. Then we wonder why these things end in some horrible story like the cattle prod, grossly embarrassing the Jewish community and demonstrating the ossification, rather than the modern relevance, of Jewish law.
Of course, “the most famous Rabbi in America”, didn't miss a chance to somewhat justify the marriage/divorce laws that cause the impossible situation where despicable people torture their ex-wives for years, refusing to grant them divorce.
Firstly, it is a husband who, in Jewish law, grants a divorce because, as in marriage itself, it reflects the natural gravitation of the masculine to the feminine. It is still men who ask wives to marry them, and it is men who must grant the divorce.
So maybe it's time to review that point? But at least Boteach is a man enough to add:
If we don’t want Judaism to become Boardwalk Empire, we need to find peaceful, legal, yet effective, means to punish those in our community who would rob a woman of the gift of renewed companionship after a failed marriage.
As far as I am concerned, the money issue put aside, Mendel Epstein and his team provided an essential and necessary social service, and, their greed notwithstanding, should be honored for their achievements in pest removal.

As for the dramatic descriptions of "electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags of the heads of husbands": I don't know, to my taste this team displayed an excessive amount of lenience, taking care to remove the plastic bags before the vermin croaked.

The law is an ass in many matters. Both Jewish and American laws are asses in this case, helpless to resolve the impossible situation. And where the law is (or becomes) an ass, isn't it the job of the people to lead that ass in the right direction? And if the ass refuses to go there, isn't it the job of the people to repair the wrongs that the ass is causing by its wrongdoing or by its apathy?

You tell me.