It sounds like a dark fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm: A young and lovely woman marries a successful young man. A daughter arrives. But the story takes a turn. The couple quarrel. The young bride flees with the baby daughter to her parents. Then the young man casts a spell, condemning the woman to a life in chains; not with him, not with anyone. No more family.
Take a little literary license with the spell and you've got the story of Aharon Friedman and Tamar Epstein, Orthodox Jews who divorced through Maryland civil courts -- in what sounds like an entirely uncivil manner -- but who have not yet been divorced by a Beit Din, a Jewish Rabbinical court. The reason is that Friedman, 34, a congressional committee aide working for Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, has refused to give Epstein a get, a Jewish writ of divorce.
Without a get, by Jewish Orthodox law, the 27-year-old Epstein is forever bound to her husband -- she is an agunah, a woman in chains, a "grass widow" in the eyes of the community. She may never marry, she may never have other children. Click play to watch video of Tamar Epstein addressing a rally on Dec. 19 in Silver Spring, Md.:
In our secular society, the idea of a religious court holding sway over our private lives seems like a fairy tale -- or something out of our deepest, most fantastical idea of Sharia law, something like stoning, say, for adultery. But for the hundreds of women in the United States and Israel, and elsewhere in the greater Jewish diaspora, whose husbands, out of spite or malice or both, refuse to issue them a get, are condemned to a life of social limbo.
They are nothing; forever in suspension. In the Orthodox Jewish world, family and marital status is absolutely everything in adult life; without the freedom of a get, there is no future. It is as though Epstein, and the women like her, have been condemned to wander a desert for 120 years. On the website for the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (the plural of Agunah in Hebrew), some 35 women are listed as those "to pray for" their quick resolution. In Israel there is even an "Agunah Day" (around the holiday of Purim). There are women who wait decades for their stories to find resolution.
And in Israel -- governed entirely by religious law for marriages -- even women who are less religious can be affected. Children born from other unions will be considered illegitimate by the state. "Very few women want to be in the position where their kids are considered mamzerim, or bastards. The stigma is really great and the stigma is so bad that it goes forever," Susan Weiss, director of the Center for Women's Justice in Israel, told NPR in April. "In other words, this person who's stigmatized -- his children are stigmatized, his grandchildren are stigmatized, everyone is stigmatized." Weiss launched a project in Israel to sue husbands for damages that deny their wives the get.
The Epstein-Friedman case is complicated. Friedman was granted a joint-custody agreement in the civil courts, one that gives him three weekends a month, but weekends that start -- according to the New York Times -- at 6 p.m. In Philadelphia. On Friday nights. Which means, for a Sabbath-observant Jew, Friedman can't really see his daughter until Sunday. That's wrenching, that's awful; that, many believe, is unfair. The kid is so far away to begin with -- and Friedman, by all accounts, begged his wife to move back to the D.C. metro area so he can see the girl more. In the Jewish newspapers, the Epstein side says that the 6 p.m. weekend start time wasn't "etched in stone" and that they will give Friedman more access -- when he grants the get.Friedman, for his part, is holding his wife hostage until he gets the girl. And so it continues, in a vicious circle.
Of course, it could be worse. There are men who have killed for less. For those of us outside the Orthodox world, who do not live our lives governed by those rules, it might be easier to shrug off. But for women like Epstein it is almost as though they are dead. Indeed, they are in a kind of purgatory, until resolution is found. And for women whose quest for a get goes on for decades -- they are like the walking wounded.
On his own blog, Rabbi Herzfeld wrote, "I have been a rabbi long enough to know that when a contested divorce is taking place there are at a minimum two different sides to the story. But when either party withholds a Get and uses that as leverage, then until that matter is settled there is only one side. Period. Otherwise we are effectively giving the spouse veto power over any court's decision. Just as we would not tolerate physical coercion, we cannot tolerate emotional coercion."
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