Village Voice Article Shows Dark Side To Jewish Law

Screenshot of Voice headline and cover art.
Screenshot of Voice headline and cover art.

A sprawling seven-page article published by the Village Voice sheds some light on one of the more extreme aspects of Jewish law: granting a get, or a divorce.

The article tells the tale of Borough Park Rabbi Mandel Epstein, which the paper dubs “Bad Rabbi,” and who was busted in October after some of his alleged goons were found in a secluded warehouse in New Jersey with rope, plastic bags, a screwdriver and surgical blades, lying in wait to torture a husband who refused to grant a divorce to his wife.

From any outsider’s perspective, Epstein was a champion for women’s rights in an patriarchal ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, advocating for women’s empowerment in marriage and divorce as far back as the 1980s. He published books and pamphlets outlining the process for women to secure a get, and on the rights of Jewish wives.

But, somewhere, Epstein went wrong. Since about the same time, according to authorities and the Village Voice, Epstein has been kidnapping husbands and brutally torturing them until they acquiesced to the divorce.

Here’s one description from the article:

This much Abraham Rubin knew: He was lying, blindfolded and handcuffed, in the back of a van. He could feel it winding through the streets. He figured at least three men were in there with him, plus the driver. There was the one who’d stepped out of nowhere and punched him in the face as he walked down 56th Street in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood just a few minutes earlier. And two, maybe three others who’d bull-rushed him and threw him into the van.
… That’s when the punching began. A relentless onslaught of fists, pummeling his torso and face. Then came the stun gun, jolting Rubin’s entire body, over and over. Rubin felt the men pull down his pants, felt the device applied to his genitals. Again and again.
Eventually, the words flowed from him.
“. . . willingly consent, being under no duress, to release, discharge, and divorce you to be on your own, you, my wife . . .
… Three hours after snatching him off the street, at around 10 o’clock on the night of October 23, 1996, his abductors left Rubin, still blindfolded and handcuffed, at the entrance to a cemetery.

In some cases, many might say that the torture was just. They involved physically and emotionally abusive husbands, who withheld divorce as a last measure of control over their spouse. Other cases, though, involved men who were using it as leverage until they could come to an agreement with their wives over custody of children or alimony payments.

It appears the circumstances made little difference to Epstein, who charged tens of thousands of dollars for his services. He also told women who came to him and expressed doubt at his method that there were no other alternatives, and if they failed to pay him they would be ostracized from the community, according to the Voice.

The Voice provides a little history on gets, and shows how it can provide husbands with control over women.

The women who came to Epstein often had a singular problem: Their husbands refused to grant them a get, a document without which an Orthodox Jewish marriage cannot be dissolved. The rule can be traced to the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, and its sway remains stifling: Without a get, a woman who remarries is considered adulterous. Any children fathered by her new husband are illegitimate under Orthodox law and prohibited from marrying within the faith.
The patriarchal nature of Orthodox marriages can lead to particularly contentious divorces. With custody and alimony at stake, a man may be tempted to use his biblically granted leverage in negotiations: No get until his terms are met. Though the practice is frowned upon, it is so pervasive that there’s a word for a woman whose husband refuses to grant a get: an agunah, which translates from Hebrew as “chained woman.”
“The get is often the last vestige of control that an abusive man has over his wife,” says Rabbi Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a nonprofit advocacy group for chained women. “Agunot are among the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community.”

Even the abuse and torture of unwilling men has historical roots, although the stun guns most likely do not.

Such acts of physical coercion go back to ancient times, when a Jewish man could legally be flogged until he relented. In the early 20th century in certain parts of Europe, Queens College professor Heilman says, a woman’s father might hire neighborhood toughs to rough up a son-in-law who refused to grant a get.

Epstein remains the most prominent modern day procurer of a get. And he relied on the community’s insularity and the ignorance of secular authorities to protect him. Here’s an exchange he had with one victim, explaining how they tortured in such a way to get accusations of assault swept under the rung as “some Jewish crazy affair”:

“We prefer not to leave a mark. Because then when you do, they do go to the police, the police look at the guy. . . . And basically the reaction of the police is, if the guy does not have a mark on him, then, ‘Is there some Jewish crazy affair here?’ They don’t get involved.”

Legislative solutions dating back to the 1980s have failed to sufficiently address the issue, and experts told the Voice that change must come from within the community.

There are other methods giving rise in the community, including pro-wife groups that publicly protest at the man’s house and synogogue, sometimes seen on our neighborhood streets. They may also organize boycotts of his business or place of employment, and urge rabbis to bar the husband entry to his synagogue.

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