Human Spirit: We Owe an Apology
August 16, 2012
Sofer , THE JERUSALEM POST
As we get busy with individual stock-taking for the Hebrew month of Elul,
let’s not overlook the sins we share as the Jewish people. For instance,
both Tikva Hamami and Tamar Epstein deserve an apology and redress from
the Jewish people. If their lives mattered enough to us, we would have
found a solution to the shameful practice of “chained” women.
Hamami (not her real name) is an Israeli. Jurisdiction over her attempts
to obtain freedom thus lies with the Rabbinical Courts in Israel, where
there are hundreds of cases of agunot, or “chained” women, whose
husbands refuse to give them a Jewish divorce.
Epstein is an American who lives in Philadelphia. In the Diaspora there
are also hundreds of women chained to recalcitrant husbands.
Hamami lived with her husband – let’s call him Ze’ev – for three months.
Epstein lived with her husband, whose name is Aharon Friedman, for just
under two years. So how did Hamami, a devout religious woman, marry someone
so unsuited to her? Blame it on naiveté, social pressure, attraction
to grandiose behavior. Maybe her usually protective family was distracted
by her father’s incarceration for espionage in Iran. She was 24, new in
the country. She’s a pharmacist, and a well-meaning matchmaker introduced
her to a fellow Persian Jew, a yeshiva student and architect who had the
means to provide her with a beautiful and loving home.
Looking back, the storm clouds were already gathering.
Hamami has had plenty of time since to analyze the short courtship and
subsequent marriage to a man who choked her, kicked her pregnant belly,
and starved her. Sixteen years. That’s how long she’s been an aguna. After
three months of abuse she went back to live with her mother, and began
what she assumed would be a reasonable divorce process. Now she’s 40.
Tamar Epstein was also 24 when she married Aharon Friedman. It sounded
like a promising union.
Epstein is a Stern College graduate and a nurse. Friedman is seven years
older, a Harvard graduate lawyer from Brooklyn. While Hamami’s husband’s
professional credentials and financial resources turned out to be fantasy,
Friedman does indeed have a prestigious job as a tax consultant for Republican
Congressman David Camp, who heads the Ways and Means Committee of the
United States Congress.
Epstein and Friedman stood under the wedding canopy in 2006, followed
by toasts quoting the well-known Talmudic pronouncement that every man’s
ideal mate is announced in heaven 40 days before he’s born. Marriage,
we like to say, is a reunion of preordained soul mates. The Epstein-Friedman
marriage wasn’t soulful. Epstein soon realized she’d made a terrible mistake.
Attempts to improve the marriage failed. According to Epstein, their already
bad marriage deteriorated after she got pregnant, and got still worse
still after she gave birth to a daughter. Epstein, like Hamami, moved
back to the safety and sanity of her parents’ home.
In civil court, the couple reached a divorce settlement in 2010. At Friedman’s
request, child visitation was determined there as well. But Friedman has
refused to give Epstein a Jewish writ of divorce, a get, without which
this young woman will never be able to remarry.
In Israel the first eight years passed as the rabbinic courts refused
to take the step of obligating Ze’ev Hamami to divorce his wife. Such
a decision allows the court to attempt to convince a recalcitrant spouse
to change his/her mind by sitting in jail, having professional licenses
suspended, and losing synagogue privileges. In 2005, with the help of
the Center for Women’s Justice (CWJ) – an organization which has initiated
the practice of suing recalcitrant husbands for damages (torts) to establish
legal certainty that get refusal is a civil wrong – Tikva Hamami sued
Ze’ev for damages in the Tel Aviv Family Court. In December 2008, Judge
Tova Sivan awarded Tikva Hamami $700,000 for the suffering her husband
had caused her by not giving her a writ of divorce. According to CWJ founder
Susan Weiss, in 65 percent of cases in which the center wins a judgment
of damages, the divorce follows swiftly.
IN THE US, Tamar Epstein initially tried a quiet path to the resolution
of her problem. She spoke to rabbis close to her ex-husband. The rabbis
implored him to issue a get. Tamar’s father was dying of cancer, and his
final wish was to see his daughter freed. When Friedman brushed off the
rabbis, Epstein went public, using the methods that have been successful
in some Jewish communities. Demonstrators gathered outside Friedman’s
family house and the White House. The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the
US and Canada issued a “final warning” to Friedman to grant a divorce.
His religious community in Washington has reputedly shunned him. The congressman
for whom he works was asked to intervene. There have been campaigns in
social media and the high-profile case has been reported in The New
In Israel, Hamami can’t remarry, but in the US, nothing would stop Epstein
from remarrying in a civil ceremony. She has a civil divorce. If she approached
a Conservative rabbinic court, the marriage could be dissolved within
that movement’s understanding of Halacha. Neither of these is an option
for Epstein, who is a deeply committed Orthodox Jew. As she points out,
get-refusal punishes those who adhere to (Orthodox interpretations) of
PLEASE DO not write me about the “good old days” when get-refusers were
thrashed by community thugs until they changed their minds. You can be
arrested for assault and battery in the modern world. Yes, there was an
episode of The Sopranos in which Tony Soprano and his team came
to the rescue of an aguna.
I wouldn’t count on the mafia. And yes, women can be get-refusers, too.
Both refusal to issue or accept a get is a form of abuse. But we all know
that most of victims are women. Please don’t suggest that get refusal
is a legitimate means of redressing supposed wrongs in child visitation
hearings. Child visitation is determined by external experts whose aim
is to protect the children.
Of all places to discuss these topics, I am doing so at a wedding with
the Honorable Rachel Levmore, the first woman to serve on the Get Committee
of the Israeli Rabbinate at a Jerusalem wedding. Levmore has won kudos
around the world for her understanding of the Halacha and the process,
coming up with solutions for women chained by criminals inside and outside
Between celebratory circle dances, I ask Levmore for the bottom line.
Why would men like Ze’ev Hamami and Aharon Friedman hold on? Their personal
lives are also suspended, (although in some cases men father children
with other women or get 100 rabbis to override the rabbinical court).
But Aharon Friedman – a public figure – knows his name has become synonymous
with hilul hashem, blaspheming God’s name. Why do they do it? Levmore’s
answer is simple: Because they can.
I fully support the work of the CWJ. I sit as a volunteer on their board.
Every person who causes anguish by refusing to issue or accept a get needs
to pay major damages. I also praise the work of ORA, the American-based
Organization for Resolution of Agunot, which is bringing Tamar Epstein’s
plight to the public consciousness. But do we really want to make peace
with a system in which extortion is a norm? In a divorce system in which
victims of getrefusal have to turn to Civil Court for damages, or to march
with signs in front of the White House? Do we want to be the mocked subject
of Sopranos episodes and to have Halacha referred to as “Jewish folklore”
in top-tier media? WE ARE a people that has found loopholes to deal with
prohibitions on money-lending, with not tossing out the whiskey on Passover,
with not living in the Land of Israel. When are we going to provide the
social pressure to change the make-up of the rabbinic courts and solve
this issue? When we give our donations this holiday season, we can make
them conditional on the rabbis and institutions we want to support challenging
the current system. If not, we are collaborators.
Says CWJ’s Susan Weiss: The solutions are here, but something else is
going on, something symbolic that we can’t give up – control over the
other, the body, the soul.
That’s what this month is about: refining our souls.
Despite all of the efforts on their behalf, as we prepare for the Jewish
year 5773, neither Hamami nor Epstein has received her Jewish writ of
Hamami has given up hope of freeing herself, remarrying and having more
children. She expects to die as the wife or widow of the man she made
the error of marrying. Remarkably, she remains a committed, extremely
religious Jew and is bringing up her 15- year-old son as a Torah-observant
Epstein is still hopeful.