Sunday, December 20, 2015

Conservative Movement annuls marriages not only by mekach ta'us but also if their rabbis think it is a good idea - what do they think about this in Philadelphia and Memphis?

Tamar Epstein became an agunah — a woman tragically chained to a defunct marriage — when her husband, Aharon Friedman, unscrupulously and vindictively refused to grant her a get, a Jewish religious divorce. 

The case — similar to a scandalously large number of similar situations involving “chained” women and recalcitrant husbands — received intense public scrutiny in part because Mr. Friedman was a staff aide to a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Rabbinic suasion and public excoriation nevertheless failed to move this particular recalcitrant to fulfill his religious obligation and terminate his marriage in accordance with Jewish law and morality. The couple’s marriage had already been dissolved in civil court.

Ms. Epstein recently has entered upon a new marriage in a ceremony solemnized by a prominent Orthodox rabbi. Her marriage to Friedman was annulled — or, more accurately, declared to have been invalid ab initio — by (as of the publication of an article on the case in the Forward) an as-yet-to-be-identified Orthodox rabbi in Philadelphia. I wish Ms. Epstein and her bridegroom, Adam Fleischer, much happiness and mazal tov — and I wish to express profound admiration and support for my anonymous Philadelphia colleague. As the Almighty promised His covenant partner, Abraham: “Your reward will be very great” (Genesis 15:1). [...]

In its recent article, the Forward quoted Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Yeshiva as calling for the former agunah (whose original marriage, and therefore whose status as an agunah, he deems to remain intact) to leave her new husband. Rabbi Feldman declares any future children born to the Fleischers to be mamzerim — “bastards”— themselves forever debarred from marriage to “legitimate” Jews. Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn similarly is quoted as describing the dissolution of Ms. Epstein’s first marriage as “a sad joke based on a clear corruption and misuse of halachic principles,” and declaring Ms. Epstein an “adulteress.” An organized effort (likely to exceed in volume and vitriol even the considerable campaign to persuade Mr. Friedman to grant a get in the first place) is underway to reject the Philadelphia-based annulment, to discourage like-minded rabbis from similar findings of law, and to deny the legitimacy of any such rabbinic actions that might be taken in the future. [...]

In addition to the principle of “mekach ta’ut,” the Talmud also asserts the far more controversial power of the rabbis to annul marriage (with cause) as an exercise of sheer authority. This extraordinary power is based on the premise that every Jewish marriage is contracted on rabbinic authority, and that the rabbis retain the concomitant prerogative to undo the marital bond unilaterally. The Forward quotes an anonymous Orthodox source as stating that this rabbinic power “has never been used in modern times.” This is untrue.

While the exercise of such sweeping rabbinic authority should be used rarely, only as a last resort, and with the utmost discretion, the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative movement does just that. Rabbinic authorities who not only delegitimize this mechanism of marital dissolution but who reject those who rightfully and courageously wield this power, on the basis of partisan religious politics alone, are complicit in creating agunot. They abet recalcitrant husbands in chaining their wives.

As a Conservative rabbi, it pains me to say it, but the efforts of the Joint Bet Din to free more agunot are impeded not only by the partisan attacks of our detractors, but by the religious laxity of some among our supporters and constituents. There are traditional, knowledgeable, pious Jewish women — including some affiliated with Orthodoxy — who would come to Conservative rabbis for relief from their status as agunot. They are dissuaded from doing so, however, by the fact that those authorities serve a constituency often lacking a fundamental commitment to Jewish law and observance. This leads observant agunot to neglect an invaluable (perhaps exclusive) resource for legitimate halachic relief. Conservative Jews who champion egalitarianism and pay lip service to the religious enfranchisement of Jewish women — yet whose personal halachic disengagement undermines the stature of their rabbis as religious decisors — thus are complicit in creating agunot. They abet recalcitrant husbands in chaining their wives. [...]

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