By Larry Gordon -
Originally published August 19, 2013 -
Rabbi Mendel Epstein says he has seen enough abuse. That is, abuse of the system that is supposed to be used to protect women (and some men, too) stuck in or navigating their way through a difficult or bad marriage.
Rabbi Epstein is a dayan and the rav of a kehillah, as well as a to’ein, an advocate who is well versed in halachah and represents litigants in front of the Jewish rabbinical tribunals commonly referred to as beis din. He has been doing this for over three decades and has been involved in more than two thousand gitten (divorce cases) and feels it necessary to publicize certain issues.
Expressing some disgust with the system, the rabbi has issued what he has entitled a “Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife.” In the introduction to his document, the rabbi writes, “I have authored the Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife to clarify and strengthen the rights of the Jewish wife because I am disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations due to incorrect hashkafos and advice that they have received and therefore come to blame the Torah and rabbanim for their plight.”
Amongst the items on the Bill of Rights are:
(1) A wife must be treated with respect and not be abused. A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get.
(2) She is entitled to be supported by her husband. Read the kesubah.
(3) A husband is obligated to honor and respect his wife’s parents.
(4) She is entitled to a normal conjugal relationship.
As far as the proliferation of divorces in the frum community, Rabbi Epstein says that the inordinate number of divorces comes about as a result of infidelity in marriages. He did not specifically refer to dalliances of this sort that start on the Internet but said that they start very often in shul and with people coming and going freely in and out of each other’s homes.
He said that there is no age restriction on these circumstances that end in divorce. He added that they affect those who have been married a few months as well as those married a few decades. Rabbi Epstein is well known in the international beis din world for his representation of parties and halachic expertise primarily in disputes centered on marital woes. The first part of our conversation the other day dealt with the fullness of the 10-point document he released last week and the matter of its sensitivity. The initial part or focal point of our talk was whether it was proper or healthy to be airing these issues out in public.
So why come forward at this juncture? Rabbi Epstein says that it was imperative that he speak up at this point because of the great proliferation of divorces in the community. “There are so many women left in limbo by the process,” he says, and adds, “There is hardly a family in the community that is not dealing with divorce or a yeshiva that does not have one or two children at minimum in every class whose parents are either in the process or already divorced.”
He says that an additional reason for speaking up at this point is that these cases, which impact so dramatically on women and children, translate into feeling resentment towards the beis din process and as a result to rabbanim in general. “Don’t minimize the impact this is having on frum homes, as mothers begin to view trying to live according to a halachic or Torah lifestyle as being a prime cause of their problems,” Rabbi Epstein says. And he adds that this attitude can easily trickle down to the children, where it can emotionally resonate for years.
“It’s not the Torah and it’s not the rabbis that are at fault or responsible for all the misery, heartache, and broken marriages and families out there,” Rabbi Mendel Epstein says. He says that more than anything else it is long-held false ideals and misguided hashkafos that have turned the way our community looks at these situations upside down.
Rabbi Epstein says that he is not functioning in a vacuum and that he has shown his Bill of Rights to several leading rabbinical figures who concur with his outspoken approach, agree with his formulation, and have encouraged the rabbi to publicize these points. Amongst those who Rabbi Epstein says have endorsed his approach are Rabbi Peretz Steinberg of the Queens Vaad HaRabonim, Rabbi Hershel Kurzrock of the Rabbinical Alliance/Igud HaRabbonim, and Rabbi Moshe Bergman, a prominent rav dealing with gittin in Brooklyn.
To illustrate his points in a fashion that also expresses his frustration, Rabbi Epstein refers to a client of his, a woman who has been waiting for her get for more than three years. Rabbi Epstein relates that in this case he called the rabbi holding up the get, inquiring as to why it was taking so long. He said that there was already evidentiary proof that the husband was no longer observing Shabbos and was also already dating other women, so why the delay? Rabbi Epstein says that the rabbi told him that he requires a therapist as a third party to independently verify that the marriage could not be repaired or saved. “There is no basis in halachah for this opinion,” Rabbi Epstein says. He adds that all this ignorant approach does is prolong the process and increase the suffering, usually on the woman’s side of the equation.
He explains that the goal of many of the rabbis involved in these situations is to keep the couple together and try to keep the family unit intact. This may look like the best situation from the outside, but internally it can be doing more damage than anyone can imagine. “There are a lot of stupid women staying with their husbands,” the rabbi says, “even though by right the marriage is over and for everyone’s good they should be out of there.”
Aside from infidelity and disloyalty in a marriage, the second-most-common reason for divorce seems to be economic pressures. Rabbi Epstein devotes two of his ten points to these matters. He states clearly that “a woman is entitled to be supported by her husband,” and that this is clearly and unequivocally defined in no uncertain terms in the kesubah that is the documented centerpiece of every Jewish marriage.
Rabbi Epstein states further in his document, “The money that she brings in before the wedding should be used to enhancing the living standard of the couple, not for the husband to waste on buying electronics or other gadgetry.”
He addresses a number of other points in our discussion. “There is a wild idea out there that a kosher woman has to put up with abuse because that’s the way Hashem wants it,” the rabbi says, expressing astonishment at the belief. “What father would want their daughter to suffer in that way?” he asks incredulously.
“Another great error that women often make is that they run to court instead of the beis din,” he says. “No court can grant her a get.” He adds that it is a mistake to run to retain a divorce attorney that unfortunately all too often mislead their clients and take them through a wild and very costly ride through the judicial system—only to find that after a few years they have accomplished nothing except the spending of tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. “The proper beis din is relatively quick, fairly cheap, and knows where the cash is hidden.”
He agrees that there are times where going to court first is beneficial, especially when there is a particularly obdurate and uncooperative husband involved. Unlike beis din, the court can demand and compel the husband to disclose all his personal financial information, which a Jewish court does not have the full legal ability to do. Sometimes this process will be convincing enough for a man to voluntarily give his wife the get.
I asked Rabbi Epstein to comment on the campaign that is encouraging families to allow their young men to marry earlier than has been the norm. The motivation of this campaign is to address the so-called shidduch crisis out there by having young men marry earlier and encouraging them to marry women their own age or even a little older. To this Rabbi Epstein responds quickly and simply: “It’s a terrible idea and it will increase the divorce rate.”
It might or might not be easily explainable, but I asked Rabbi Epstein whether verbal abuse or being spoken to harshly or with a lack of respect for either party in a marriage is grounds for divorce. His response: “Cursing her or her family could be grounds for a get. Or to quote Chazal, ‘Ein adam dor im nachash bekefifa achas’—you can’t live with a snake.”
As to why he believes there is so much dysfunction to which he attributes failed marriages and the inordinate number of divorces in the community, Rabbi Epstein for the most part points toward the young (and not-so-young) men. “The main reason many young people are just not ready for marriage or parenthood is that many of the boys are just sitting in yeshiva. They are not tested or evaluated and all too many do not even make it to morning minyan,” he says. And Rabbi Epstein adds that he thinks that this idea of sending boys to out-of-town yeshiva at such a young age is finally backfiring on families and the community. “We send our kids to dormitories, and during his formative years the child hardly ever sees what a normal husband–wife relationship looks like.” He adds that too many children grow up thinking that their parents are little more than ATMs. “So when Mr. Spoiled marries Ms. Spoiled, why are we shocked that they cannot make a marriage work or successfully assume the responsibilities of parenthood?” he asks rhetorically.
So there it is. Rabbi Mendel Epstein says that he has observed this sad reality playing itself out and most community leaders just looking away as the problems that plague our people and wreak havoc are spiraling out of control. He says that it needs to be said not to G‑d forbid embarrass anyone but rather to put the issues out there so that we can tackle them, take them on, and try to figure out some solutions. v
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