In Orthodox Jewish Kidnapping Case, Community Must Share Blame

Two Orthodox Jewish rabbis from Brooklyn are facing federal kidnapping charges after allegedly agreeing to kidnap and torture husbands who refused to grant their wives a “get”–a document that essentially frees the woman from her husband, allowing her to remarry without being guilty of adultery.

Although a “get” is not required for a civil (legal) divorce, Orthodox Jewish women who fail to obtain one can face shame and rejection within their communities. A woman may be legally divorced, but without the “get”, she is still considered married in the eyes of the Orthodox Jewish community.

It is for this reason that I cannot totally condemn these women. Surely a woman who would pay a rabbi up to $50,000 to hire someone to kidnap her husband in order to have the right to remarry is a woman with few other options.

And although the actions allegedly taken by Rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark are deplorable, it seems that they were motivated at least in part by a desire to help these women. According to the New York Times article, Rabbi Epstein in particular was concerned about the rights of women and the difficulties they could face.

And I don’t want it to sound like I’m “blaming the victim”, but the husbands, too, are at least partly responsible for what happened to them. Their refusal to grant their wives permission to divorce is what drove these women to such desperate measures in the first place.

So if none of the individuals involved are wholly responsible for this kidnapping scheme, who–or what–is? Well, if fingers are to be pointed anywhere, it should be at the system of religious law that grants nearly all of the power in relationships to men.

By requiring wives to obtain their husbands’ permission for divorce, Jewish law ensures that in most relationships the woman will occupy a position that is subordinate to that of the man. (This problem is hardly unique to Orthodox Judaism, however.)

If the allegations in this case are true, then what these rabbis did was a crime. Nevertheless, we should reserve our harshest condemnation not for the rabbis or the wives, but for the Orthodox Jewish belief system that treats women as second-class citizens and leaves them with no peaceful recourse should they be denied a divorce.

This is not a problem that can be solved through legislation or government edict. Rather, it will require a cultural shift within these Orthodox Jewish communities. (Such a cultural shift could be brought about, for example, by making these neighborhoods more religiously and ethnically diverse, thereby lessening the impact of community shunning.)

Of course, none of this absolves the guilty parties of responsibility for their actions. Kidnapping and torture are serious crimes, regardless of the reasons behind them.

However, a community that continues to use 2,000-year-old religious law as the basis for social norms deserves at least part of the blame when some of its members take desperate measures to avoid violating those norms–as happened in this case.

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