A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the FBI’s arrest of two rabbis who allegedly orchestrated the kidnapping and torture of dozens of men in New Jersey. The rabbis allegedly did this in order to force the men to consent to their wives’ requests for divorce under Jewish law. Under Jewish law, a woman cannot unilaterally divorce her husband; the husband must give permission, or a get. If he refuses, the wife becomes a chained woman, or agunah, who cannot remarry.
The women in these cases were apparently desperate for Jewish divorces and took extreme measures to obtain them. They allegedly paid the rabbis tens of thousands of dollars to convene Jewish law tribunals and issue decrees allowing violence against the recalcitrant husbands. The rabbis then allegedly arranged for thugs to torture the husbands until the husbands granted the gets. This conduct would obviously be criminal under US law and the rabbis will not be able to escape punishment by arguing that their religion authorized what they did.
I expressed doubt in my post that ordering violence against a recalcitrant husband would be consistent with Jewish law. It turns out that I may have spoken too soon. My friend Michael Helfand at Pepperdine University, an expert in Jewish law and occasional guest here at CLR Forum, explains in the The Forward that “the use of violent sanction in these circumstances has been a feature of Jewish family law for millennia.” Under traditional Jewish law, he writes, if a husband refused to comply with a tribunal’s judgment and give his wife a get,
the rabbinical court could authorize the use of violent force against the husband. While divorces [could not] be executed under duress, it was simply unimaginable that a husband would so cruelly leave his wife trapped in a nonfunctional marriage. Thus, force simply served as a vehicle to free the husband’s inner desire to do the right thing and grant his wife a divorce.
Michael doesn’t advocate this practice, I hasten to add, and he notes that the strong implication of bribery would likely invalidate the religious decrees in the New Jersey cases. In fact, Michael advocates a very American fix for the problem of agunot–a prenuptial agreement. (Michael wrote about the topic here at CLR Forum back in March). The Beth Din of America, a major Jewish law tribunal in the US, has adopted a model prenup “that requires a husband to provide his wife with a daily support payment, typically $150, for each day the two no longer live together and the husband still refuses to grant his wife a religious divorce.”
The prenup is not a panacea. A wealthy husband could make the payments and refuse to give a get, and a wife without such a prenup wouldn’t benefit at all. But the prenup might help some agunot, and wouldn’t require kidnapping one’s husband and torturing him. It’s like they used to tell us in law school: In America, when the going gets tough, the tough contract out.