Federal Authorities Accuse Rabbis of Kidnapping Scheme in Connection with Religious Divorces

Often, in my class on law and religion at St. John’s, we address difficult questions about where to draw the line on religious autonomy. How far should the state go in accommodating religious practices that conflict with state rules? Or, put in reverse, how much freedom from state control can religious organizations legitimately expect? The recent contraceptives mandate is an example of this sort of conflict.

But one of my students yesterday emailed me an article from the New York Times that discusses an an easy case–at least as the facts have been reported. Federal authorities in New Jersey this week accused two rabbis of orchestrating the kidnapping and torture of dozens of men. The rabbis did this in order to force the men to consent to their wives’ requests for divorce under Jewish law.

According to traditional Jewish law, as I understand it, women have no right unilaterally to divorce their husbands. For a divorce to be final, the husband must give his permission, or get. If the husband declines to give a get, the marriage is not dissolved, and the woman becomes an agunah, or chained woman. This means the woman cannot marry again under Jewish law. Of course, the woman could divorce and remarry civilly, but many observant Jewish women decline to take this route, as it would render them, and their future children, outcasts in their own communities.

In theory, a husband must give a get of his own free will. There are ways for Jewish law tribunals to encourage obstinate husbands to give gets, however. A tribunal might ban a husband from his synagogue until he does so, for example. And some civil jurisdictions, like New York, have passed “get laws,” which try, in various ways, to create incentives for husbands to give their wives gets.

But the two New Jersey rabbis allegedly took things much further. They allegedly kidnapped men and tortured them with tasers and electric shocks until the men agreed to give their wives gets. Apparently the rabbis charged $10,000 for a tribunal ruling allowing the use of violence against the men, and $50,000 for hiring people to do the work. The rabbis were caught in a federal sting operation:

The undercover female F.B.I. agent told Rabbi Epstein that she wanted to divorce her husband, described as a businessman in South America, who refused to grant her request. Rabbi Epstein urged her to lure the man to New Jersey, which she pledged to do.

Next Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark convened their own rabbinical court, complete with legalisms and formalities, to issue a religious edict “authorizing the use of violence to obtain a forced get,” according to court records. The undercover agent offered testimony before the two rabbis, who were joined by other religious figures.

Told that the husband was arriving in New Jersey, eight of Rabbi Epstein’s associates met at a New Jersey warehouse to finalize the kidnapping plan, according to court documents. At that point F.B.I. agents moved in to arrest the group. The agents seized masks, ropes, scalpels and feather quills and ink bottles used for recording the get they anticipated.

I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine this sort of thing is legal under Jewish law; the whole thing seems a parody of legal process. From the point of view of civil law, however, I’m sure this is an easy case. However much discretion the state allows religious tribunals–and, in my opinion, we should allow them a great deal of discretion, as a matter of religious freedom–it doesn’t go this far. Banning someone from your synagogue is one thing. Tying someone up in a van and torturing him is quite another, even if you have a tribunal decree that allows you to do it.

You can read the Times article here.

Christians in Israel Complain of Mistreatment

The Washington Post has a story this week about vandalism at a Protestant cemetery in Jerusalem. The vandals toppled stone crosses from graves and smashed them to pieces. The incident is the latest in a string of recent attacks on Christian sites in Israel:

The attack joins a list of high-profile Christian sites that have been vandalized within the past year. They include a Trappist monastery in Latrun, outside Jerusalem, where vandals burned a door and spray-painted “Jesus is a monkey” on the century-old building, a Baptist church in Jerusalem, and other monasteries. Clergymen often speak of being spat at by ultra-Orthodox religious students while walking around Jerusalem’s Old City wearing frocks and crosses.

As to this last fact, Armenian Apostolic priests from the Old City have told me they personally have been spat upon, usually during processions. As the Post report states, the culprits in these spitting incidents, and the suspects in the most recent attack on the cemetery, are students at ultra-orthodox yeshivas. Everyone agrees, according to the Post, that Jewish-Christian in Israel are better than they have been in the past, and that the Israeli police have started to do more to address attacks on Christians. But Christians complain that the attacks continue unabated.

You can read the whole piece here.

Carney, “Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era”

This month, Oxford publishes Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and 9780199982271Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era, by J.J. Carney (Creighton University). The publisher’s description follows.

Between 1920 and 1994, the Catholic Church was Rwanda’s most dominant social and religious institution. In recent years, the church has been critiqued for its perceived complicity in the ethnic discourse and political corruption that culminated with the 1994 genocide. In analyzing the contested legacy of Catholicism in Rwanda, Rwanda Before the Genocide focuses on a critical decade, from 1952 to 1962, when Hutu and Tutsi identities became politicized, essentialized, and associated with political violence.

This study–the first English-language church history on Rwanda in over 30 years–examines the reactions of Catholic leaders such as the Swiss White Father André Perraudin and Aloys Bigirumwami, Rwanda’s first indigenous bishop. It evaluates Catholic leaders’ controversial responses to ethnic violence during the revolutionary changes of 1959-62 and after Rwanda’s ethnic massacres in 1963-64, 1973, and the early 1990s. In seeking to provide deeper insight into the many-threaded roots of the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda Before the Genocide offers constructive lessons for Christian ecclesiology and social ethics in Africa and beyond.

Gentry, “Offering Hospitality: Questioning Christian Approaches to War”

This September, Notre Dame published Offering Hospitality: Questioning ChristianP03070 Approaches to War, by Caron E. Gentry (University of St. Andrews). The publisher’s description follows.

In Offering Hospitality: Questioning Christian Approaches to War, Caron E. Gentry reflects on the predominant strands of American political theology—Christian realism, pacifism, and the just war tradition—and argues that Christian political theologies on war remain, for the most part, inward-looking and resistant to criticism from opposing viewpoints.

In light of the new problems that require choices about the use of force—genocide, terrorism, and failed states, to name just a few—a rethinking of the conventional arguments about just war and pacifism is timely and important. Gentry’s insightful perspective marries contemporary feminist and critical thought to prevailing theories, such as Christian realism represented in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and the pacifist tradition of Stanley Hauerwas. She draws out the connection between hospitality in postmodern literature and hospitality as derived from the Christian conception of agape, and relates the literature on hospitality to the Christian ethics of war. She contends that the practice of hospitality, incorporated into the jus ad bellum criterion of last resort, would lead to a “better peace.”

Gentry’s critique of Christian realism, pacifism, and the just war tradition through an engagement with feminism is unique, and her treatment of failed states as a concrete security issue is practical. By asking multiple audiences—theologians, feminists, postmodern scholars, and International Relations experts—to grant legitimacy and credibility to each other’s perspectives, she contributes to a reinvigorated dialogue.