It’s one of the most morally complex issues to hit the Orthodox Jewish world in recent years. In a story which lies at the very crossroads of Orthodox Jewish law and secular U.S. law, four rabbis and one of their sons were indicted yesterday by a federal grand jury for allegedly conspiring to kidnap and force Jewish men to grant their wives religious divorces.
The men—Rabbis Mendel Epstein, 68, Martin Wolmark, 56, Jay Goldstein, aka “Yaakov,” 60, David Epstein, 39, and Binyamin Stimler, 38—hail from Brooklyn, Monsey, N.Y., and Lakewood, N.J. and face up to life in prison for conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and 20 years for attempted kidnapping. In addition, as the result of months of investigation, David Epstein, aka “Ari”—Mendel Epstein’s son—has been indicted. Goldstein and Wolmark face three additional counts of kidnapping, and David Epstein faces nine counts of kidnapping, tying this case to other cases from 2009 and 2010.
The conspiracy to commit kidnapping was uncovered by an FBI sting operation. An officer pretending to be a woman whose husband was refusing to grant her a Jewish divorce, leaving her in the limbo state of being an agunah—a chained wife—turned to Epstein and Wolmark. According to the indictment, Epstein was recorded telling the undercover FBI agent: “Sup, suppose we, ya know this is an expensive thing to do. It’s not simply … basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get.” The good rabbi specified: “We take an electric cattle prod… If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move, you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.”
For $60,000, “tough guys” would kidnap and beat her husband into agreeing to divorce her, Epstein promised. An additional $10,000 would have to be paid to the rabbinical court to approve the kidnapping and the use of violence.
An initial $10,000 was paid, and on October 9, Goldstein and Stimler arrived at a warehouse to execute the kidnapping. They met a team wearing disguises, including ski masks, Halloween masks, and bandanas, and who had with them rope, surgical blades, a screwdriver, plastic bags, and “items used to ceremonially record a get,” according to court documents. The team of eight was arrested, along with Goldstein and Stimler.
The rabbis’ actions, while extreme, follow in a long tradition of religious Jews trying to make up for the unfair nature of Jewish divorce. While men can find loopholes with which to divorce unwilling wives, wives have very little recourse when it comes to getting divorced from husbands who wish to stay married. The Talmud itself recommends that force be used to “convince” men to grant their wives a divorce. So in a way, these vigilantes were operating in line with the vigilantism recommended by the Talmud to free chained wives.
The problem arises when their methods intersect with U.S. law. The price these men might pay for their actions looks like 20-to-life.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.