A kollel member sent me a question today regarding a scholarly Conservative Jew who has traditional sources justifying selectively not keeping Torah mitzvos. He said he couldn't find any errors in the reasoning of the Conservative Jew - and he wanted to know how to answer him.
I replied, in part, that first a person has to be committed to the same religious system as you before he has a vote on altering it - even if the alterations seem to be in agreement with halachic rules. That is why gedolim are entrusted to make statements that the run of the mill yeshiva student learning the same issues - is not. Would the same question arise if a Christian scholar who knew Shas and Poskim made a pronouncement?
Today's email also brought a related issue - regarding the Modern Orthodox. As you are aware, I have spent considerable time concerning the question of pressuring a husband to give a Get in a case where the wife claims she doesn't want to be married to him anymore. In particular I have devoted much effort on this blog discussing the issues of the Friedman-Epstein divorce case and why ORA which is supported by Rabbi Herschel Schachter has no basis in halacha for pressuring the husband through either embarrassment or financial loss. On the other hand Rabbi Schachter, who clearly is aware of the problem of get me'usa, feels that the demonstrations don't produce one. This post is not about whether I view Rabbi Schachter as a halachic authority - I definitely do.
Recently ORA conducted another demonstration against Aharon Friedman in Washington to apply the prohibited pressure for him to give a Get. Amongst those demonstrating were members of the Berman Hebrew Academy - a co-ed Modern Orthodox school in the Washington area. The headmaster of the school - who helped organized the protests writes about why it was necessary to protest - and mentions that ORA gave the students a seminar to persuade students to demonstrate. This is the focus of this post.
Berman Hebrew Acadamy Headmaster clearly does not understand the halachic problem of Get me'usa and simply feels the issue is one of social justice when he wrote:
We have spoken in school about the plight of agunot a number of times, so I was caught by surprise when several of our students expressed reluctance to go to the rally. For some, it was merely a question of strategy (are rallies effective, might they backfire, etc.) These are reasonable questions and reasonable people may differ. Other concerns revolved around a concern that we were hearing only one side and that we should not protest until we hear from Aharon Friedman as well.
Here’s where I was a little more taken aback. On the surface, this concern also seems reasonable, but in the context of agunot, I don’t believe that one need to hear both sides…and clearly, our education on the topic did not resolve these questions for the students.
My response to the students would be as follows: We are not taking sides in a divorce proceedings or whether one is a better spouse/parent than the other. There should be NO EXCUSE for using a halakhic loophole to blackmail or extort the other side. This is a distortion of the nature of halakhah and its purposes, and it makes no difference if he has legitimate claims against her. [...]
Our Judaism is supposed to elevate us, bring us closer to Hashem, make us better citizens of the world, and more responsible to each other. When religion is used to bring pain, it detracts from all of us. This is an unintended consequence of a legal system in which loopholes necessarily exist, but it is not a result that we should accept.
In the end, I had no need to speak directly with the students, because we ran a program this morning directly from ORA (Organization for the Resolution of Agunot). The program was excellent and helped to scope out the whole range of issues involved. Kol ha-kavod to ORA’s executive director Rabbi Jeremy Stern and to David Marks (Class of 2007) who helped to organize and run the program. And kol ha-kavod to our seniors, who took the time to consider their important messages carefully and thoughtfully.
Update: March 7 - Just received this comment
Hebrew Academy's connection to the Epstein family
Daattorah recently posted a blog entry by Dr. Joshua Levisohn, headmaster of the Berman Hebrew Academy, who argues that the facts (other than that the parties are civilly divorced and no get was given) in the Epstein-Friedman matter are irrelevant and that therefore getting Aharon Friedman's point of view would be pointless. Unfortunately, he lacks the integrity to disclose his school's connection to one of the parties in this matter. Tamar Epstein's sister, Yael Cortell, has taught at his school for many years [ www.linkedin.com/pub/cortell-yael/46/498/298; http://www.mjbha.org/About_Us/Users_Guide_to_MJBHAs_Admin/Users_Guide_to_MJBHAs_Administration.cfm].
Dr. Levisohn's assertion that custody is a matter for the courts rejects the halacha that such matters be decided by a beis din, but then again perhaps that should not be surprising, for as Rabbi Eidensohn previously noted, it does not appear that Dr. Levisohn necessarily accepts halacha. Dr. Levisohn's assertion is also ironic, given that Tamar successfully argued that Aharon could not challenge her unilateral relocation of the child in court specifically because he had agreed to cancel an earlier court trial to bring the matter to beis din [whose orders regarding dismissing the civil case Tamar violated].
Update: March 11
Rabbi Eidensohn,My previous email may not have been clear.
On Daatorah, Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn and Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn have expressed concern that various prominent rabbonim are acting contrary to halacha with regard to the circumstances under which a husband may be subject to different degrees of coercion to give a get. These rabbonim seem to be changing halacha in this area without providing any explanation for this change.
It seems to me that some of these rabbonim are clearly setting out new generally applicable principles that they explicitly say would apply all cases. Other rabbonim just appear to be applying new rules in very specific cases without purporting to pronounce new principles that would be broadly applicable to other cases.
ORA’s leaders, Rabbi Jeremy Stern and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, are clearly setting out new generally applicable principles regarding when coercion may be used. They are not just applying these principles to specific individual cases. Rabbi Schachter has given several speeches on this point that are on YU's website and that have been analyzed on Daatorah.
But the more right wing rabbonim have only intervened in specific cases. So far as I know, they have not made general statements about what degree of coercion may be used regarding a get in which types of cases. It also seems that they have gotten involved in cases in which they have close family connections to one side in the disputes. Rabbi Malkiel Kotler is a first cousin to Ms. Dodelson's mother. Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky has longstanding close relationships with the Epstein family [For example See Dr. Dovid Epstein, z’l, Yated Ne’eman, May 4, 21012 (attached, noting how close Dr. Epstein was to Rabbi Kamenetsky and featuring a picture of the two, and Dr. Epstein’s involvement in the Philadelphia Orthodox community); http://articles.philly.com/2010-04-20/news/25213049_1_family-physician-geriatric-medicine-future-wife “Dr. Epstein [Tamar’s father] was an active supporter of Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia [of which Rabbi Kamenetsky is founder and rosh yeshiva], a religious school for Orthodox Jewish boys and young men in Overbrook. He volunteered his medical services to the school and was on call to care for the students 24/7, said a close friend, Rick Goldfein [Tamar’s Rabbinical Court lawyer and press spokesman].”