Federal authorities have charged two ultra-Orthodox rabbis with plotting to kidnap and threaten men who refused to grant their wives Jewish divorces, known as gets. The rabbis, identified as Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Rabbi Martin Wolmark, were arrested last night in FBI raids on their homes and yeshivas in Brooklyn and Monsey.
According to the New York Times, an undercover FBI agent posed as a woman unsuccessfully attempting to obtain a get or Jewish divorce from her husband, who “turned” to Epstein for help:
In a subsequent meeting at Rabbi Epstein’s home in Ocean County, New Jersey, Rabbi Epstein explained what he planned to do. “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,” according to a recorded conversation that is described in the criminal complaint. Rabbi Epstein, according to the court papers, mentioned that his “tough guys” utilized cattle prods and other torture techniques that were not likely to leave a mark.
Court documents indicate the rabbis had “hired hands” who could do the dirty work. Fees ranged from $10,000 for approval from a rabbinical court to $50,000 for the kidnappings themselves. According to the Times, Epstein was especially concerned that the husbands not have any obvious signs of injury, without which the police are unlikely to probe too deeply into the affairs of the Orthodox Jewish community, which can appear impenetrable to outsiders.
But in religious communities, Epstein is known as a hero to the undivorced women known as agunot—literally, chained women. He is the author of A Woman’s Guide to the Get Process. In April, he wrote a “Wife’s Bill of Rights” for the Five Towns Jewish Times. The list included items such as “a wife must be treated with respect and not be abused” and “she is entitled to a normal conjugal relationship.” He told the paper he felt compelled to speak out on behalf of the “many women left in limbo” by Jewish divorce law, in which divorces require a husband’s uncoerced consent.
But that’s where things get complicated. According to NBC New York, the court papers refer to Epstein’s activities as threats to coerce men to conduct divorces. A forced get, known as get meuseh, would be invalid in a Jewish court, or beit din. So if Epstein indeed engaged in the crimes he’s accused of, where did he draw the line? A person who knows Epstein but declined to speak on the record confirmed that what he described as “social pressures” are often used to “explain” to recalcitrant husbands why giving a get is in his interest—which would not invalidate a get. But the same person said he had also heard stories of men being grabbed and taken to basements, hoods placed over their heads, where they were threatened.
So is Epstein a criminal, or a hero fighting for women’s rights—and under the banner of freedom of religion? On the one hand, any of these women can go to civil courts and be divorced with or without her husband’s consent. But for religious women, the only court that matters is the beit din. So what do you do when your religion allows men an unfair advantage in divorce proceedings? Some believe the state should intervene, while others insist it makes a bad situation worse. Either way, vigilantism is the sign of a broken legal system, and a band of rabbis taking the law into their own hands is not good for anyone involved. As the person close to Epstein put it, “How can you prevent it from getting out of hand?”
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Her Twitter feed is @bungarsargon.