The Chained Wife

By Micah Stein
Thursday, June 14, 2012

Yafa Friedman lives in a modest, two-story townhouse in Brooklyn with plastic lawn chairs on the porch and peeling white trim around the windows. This past Sunday, the shades were drawn as a group of 30 protestors marched outside the house chanting, "Yafa Friedman—stop the abuse!" After an hour, the group drove over to Merkaz HaSimcha, a Jewish wedding hall owned by Friedman's brother, Rabbi Jay Horowitz. The chanting continued: "Rabbi Horowitz—shame on you!" This went on for two hours, as the protestors—young and old, men and women, from every shade of Orthodoxy—continued to chant, hold up signs, pass out fliers, and recite psalms.

What was Friedman and Horowitz's crime? According to the protestors, they are guilty of aiding and abetting Aharon Friedman in his refusal to divorce his wife. Yafa Friedman is his mother; Rabbi Horowitz, his uncle.  

If this sounds strange—and it should—consider that the Friedman family is at the center of a religious impasse that has stymied rabbinic authorities and Jewish communities for centuries: freeing the agunah, the Chained Wife.

First, the facts: Tamar Epstein and Aharon Friedman were married in 2006 and had a daughter the following year. Soon after, the relationship soured. The couple separated in 2008 before divorcing in 2010, with Epstein retaining primary custody of their child.  Or, rather, the couple civilly divorced—Freidman has continually refused to grant his ex-wife a get, the Jewish writ of divorce, leaving their marriage intact according to Jewish law.

For Epstein, the consequences of this refusal are intangible but severe. Without a valid divorce document, she is prohibited from remarrying and any future children she has will be considered mamzerim—bastards—a designation which precludes their marrying Jews. 

However, she is not without allies.  The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA) has launched an aggressive campaign on Epstein's behalf, using social media and protest rallies (like the one in Brooklyn) to pressure Friedman into divorcing his estranged wife. These tactics reflect new strategies in an old war, as the problem of recalcitrant husbands dates back to the Talmud. In tractate Arahin, the rabbis discuss a situation involving a man who is legally required to divorce his wife, but refuses. What should the court do? "We beat him until he says 'I agree [to grant the get].'" Problem solved.

Or is it?  Physical coercion can only be used in extreme cases, typically involving a husband who has become physically intolerable to his wife ("a man who gathers dog excrement" is one of the talmudic examples); "irreconcilable differences" does not qualify as a reason.  There is also the matter of beating people up being illegal.  Jewish law does permit community members to exert some pressure on a recalcitrant husband, as long as the tactics do not cross over into compulsion. Historically, this has involved community sanctions or excommunication.

Today, the methods used to pressure a recalcitrant husband vary by country and community. In Israel, where religious courts handle marriage and divorce, get refusal can earn a stubborn spouse hefty fines or indefinite jail time. In America, the legal options are more limited. New York has a "Get Law," which allows judges to consider "barriers to remarriage" when dividing assets in a divorce and financially penalize the recalcitrant party. A preventative option is the Halakhic Prenuptial Agreement, which in a case of get refusal obligates the husband to continue supporting his estranged wife to the tune of $150 per day.

Of course, some people still prefer the talmudic method. In 2011, the FBI arrested a Jewish couple in Lakewood, New Jersey for kidnapping and assaulting a man who had refused to issue a get. According the indictment, the couple beat the recalcitrant husband "for multiple hours" and threatened to bury him alive in the Poconos. Then, "the victim was asked to raise his voice and consent to the divorce over and over again. The victim was told what to say word for word in English and Hebrew." (They also tried to extort $100,000 from the man's father.)  Alas, such behavior qualifies as "forcing the get."

In Epstein's case, ORA has honed in on Friedman's job as a legislative aide to Representative Dave Camp (R-MI), the Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means. In a campaign organized by ORA, Epstein supporters flooded Camp's office and Facebook page with messages urging the congressman to pressure Friedman into giving the get. An online petition calling for Congressman Camp to "stop supporting abuser Aharon Friedman" garnered 5,800 signatures. As a media maneuver, the strategy was a hit—the story has been covered by Fox News, the New York Times, Politico, and the Huffington Post, along with major Jewish news outlets. But while the campaign has surely succeeded in embarrassing Friedman, Congressman Camp has stood by his aide, calling the allegations "gossip." (He may have no choice in the matter.)

ORA is not deterred. I spoke with Rabbi Jeremy Stern, ORA's executive director, at Yeshiva University, where the organization was founded in 2002. While Epstein is ORA's most high-profile case, the organization has helped resolve over 160 cases of get refusal in the past ten years. Stern explained the purpose of Sunday's rally: "We have these rallies to make a statement that you can't support a recalcitrant husband. Period." ORA has also protested outside Friedman's home in Silver Spring, Maryland; this time, the target was his support system. "Aharon is dependent on their support," Stern said. "I am certain that if Aharon were to lose that support base of his family that he would give the get."

In our conversation, Stern referred to Freidman's actions as "a distortion of halakhah [Jewish religious law]."  But it is difficult to see how get refusal is distortive: Jewish law gives men the sole authority to dissolve a marriage; Aharon Friedman is merely exercising that right. This does not excuse his actions, which are unquestionably abusive—but it does suggest that the problem is, on some level, institutional.   

On this topic, ORA is not without critics. The Forward faulted organizations like ORA for focusing their efforts on recalcitrant husbands, rather than stubborn rabbis. "If withholding a get constitutes abuse," wrote Dvora Meyers, "then the question should be asked: How did the gun get into his hand?" At the same time, a number of right-wing blogs accuse ORA of violating Jewish law in their pursuit of gets, leading to adultery and illegitimate children in the community.

The Brooklyn rally captured the advantages and limitations of ORA's methodology.  For starters, the issue of agunot can seem strange to those unfamiliar with Jewish law. One man, who spotted the rally while walking his dog, sympathized with Epstein's plight but had reservations about the protest. "I can think of better things to protest in this neighborhood," he said. Such as? "That new mosque around the corner—they are always double parked on Sunday." However, another woman who read one of ORA's flyers quickly joined the protest.

Later, outside Horowitz's wedding hall, the protestors lined the entranceway as a group of men arrived for afternoon prayers. On his bullhorn, Stern identified one congregant as Dov Charnowitz, another get refuser, and he began leading the protestors in a Hebrew chant of "woe to the wicked man and woe to his neighbor!"

Two spectators watched the scene unfold. "They should burn this place down," one said, "You can't let a guy get away with this." The other man hesitated: "I don't know, it's not my problem."

Was the protest successful? Neither Freidman nor Horowitz showed up, but their neighbors, friends, and customers certainly did. ORA has succeeded in making life difficult for Friedman and his supporters—if only that were enough.

Micah Stein is a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.  

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