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Congress’ Chained Woman

The chair of the House Ways and Means Committee says he’s committed to family values. So, why is he allowing his adviser to deny his wife a get?

Deborah E. Lipstadt
March 20, 2012
Tamar Epstein.(Thinking Jew Girl)
Tamar Epstein.(Thinking Jew Girl)

Congressman Dave Camp, the Republican from Michigan who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, has a 100 percent rating from the Family Research Council, the conservative Christian organization that claims to promote “faith, family, and freedom.” So, why is this religious Catholic allowing his senior adviser Aharon Friedman, counsel to the House Ways Committee, to abuse his wife?

Here are the facts: Aharon Friedman, 34 years old, has refused to give his wife, Tamar Epstein, a get, a Jewish writ of divorce, for the past four years. Epstein, 29, is in limbo, to borrow a term from another religious faith. Without a get, she cannot remarry in the Orthodox community, have children, and get on with her life. According to a recent study by the Greater Washington Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, there are currently approximately 500 women in North America like Tamar Epstein. (Uncounted, of course, are the number of women who agree to pay their husbands substantial sums, compromise on child custody, and make other concessions precisely so that they will not become agunot, or chained women.)

Friedman has been “held in contempt” by no less than the greatly respected Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, a rabbinic court that does not have the power to issue a get—only the husband can do that—but can try to compel the husband to do so. The organization has issued a Declaration of Contempt (seruv) against Friedman.

In addition, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, the body of Orthodox rabbis in the Greater Washington area, also known as the Rabbinical Council, issued a letter calling on the Jewish community to exclude Friedman from participating in prayer services, joining their institutions, and other elements of “membership” in the community. He has also been condemned by an array of Orthodox rabbis, among them Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington, which bills itself as the National Jewish Synagogue, and Avraham Shmidman of the Lower Merion Synagogue in Pennsylvania.

At a rally in support of Tamar Epstein held in December 2010, Rabbi Shmidman said: “Aharon Friedman walks around Capitol Hill as a religious Jew … But this is not what a religious Jew does.” According to the New York Times, over a year ago Rabbi Herzfeld wrote to Jon Traub, the Republican staff director of the Ways and Means Committee, accusing Friedman of “psychological terrorism.”

And yet, Camp has dismissed the whole thing as “gossip.” It’s not. It’s a fact that Friedman is abusing his wife using the foil of religion. Camp has reportedly told others it’s an internal or private matter and he does not feel he should get involved. But imagine if a chief staffer in Camp’s office was found to be beating his spouse or abusing his children. Would Camp dismiss that as “a private matter”? I seriously doubt it.

It would be ironic if Camp is reluctant to take a stand because he fears that he might offend Jews. The fact is that Judaism takes a very dim view of husbands who refuse to give their wives gets, particularly after having been told to do so by rabbinic courts. Maimonides believed that recalcitrant husbands should be flogged until they agreed to issue the get.

Friedman has complained that there are unfair aspects to divorce and child-custody settlement—aspects that he wants to change. But using the giving of a get is an unfair tool and only sullies the tradition Friedman claims to uphold.

Neither Camp nor the other members of the Republican party should countenance employing a man who uses what I believe is best described as a religious ploy to prevent his wife from moving on with her life. They don’t need to fire him. They only need to coerce him to do the right thing by sending him a clear message: As long as he refuses to set Tamar Epstein free, he is shaming the United States House of Representatives and the Republican Party, which prides itself on being pro-family, pro-religion, and pro-procreation. There is nothing that could be less pro-family, -religion, or -procreation than this kind of behavior.

Camp’s Facebook page was inundated with critical comments about Friedman. It is no longer possible to post comments about this issue on his page, though Camp’s office has not explained why. But his critics have already taken to Twitter @FreeTamar and other social media sites.

You can call Camp’s office and politely say this is wrong. (I just did.) You can contact the Ways and Means Committee, ask for the director’s office, and express your dismay. You can also sign a petition urging Camp to act. Thousands already have.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press’ The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her Twitter feed is @deborahlipstadt.

Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Nextbook Press’ The Eichmann Trial, is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. Her Twitter feed is @deborahlipstadt.