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Aharon Friedman, Capitol Hill Staffer Who Won't Grant Wife Jewish Divorce

3 years ago
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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.

It is for that reason that Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington dramatically told the New York Times, "I don't think the Messiah can come, as long as there is one agunah in the world."

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."
Filed Under: Religion, Woman Up, Culture

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244 Comments

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JDJPS Grinols

It sounds as though a "get" is only of importance if the divorced women is insistent on marrying another Jew second time around. If this is the case then this is not a matter for goyim. I think this article or problem need not trouble the secular world.

January 12 2011 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Yakov & Candace!

Women often get custody of the children and fathers are left holding the bag. Children need both parents and when a mother moves away with the child, she is asking for conflict. I hope this couple moves towards forgiveness and compassion, for each other and their daughter, whose best interests are forgotten when parents fight.

January 12 2011 at 12:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeff

Yes she can have a life, turn this intolerable situation by a religion, into
a life where she can marry, have children. That is leave that religion for
another that is a little more tolerant. There is large number of them that do
not restrict a persons rights under the law.

January 11 2011 at 5:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
metter's world

Grant the meshugah huzband his own designed scheduled visitation on condition he sign off on the "get"

January 11 2011 at 4:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
a42otree

This reminds me of the Sopranos in the very beginning (3rd episode) where the only way the wife got her divorce was by Tony offering the divorce or cutting off the husbands penis. He choose to keep what was left of his manhood. Stupid Seed..

January 11 2011 at 3:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rabbirutenberg

The author of this article clearly did a very poor job in researching the Orthodox view of the Agunah. All one has to do is a simple Google search to find many orthodox organizations that's sole purpose is to help women in this situation. An agunah is very rare in the orthodox community, and it appears in this case she has not even tried to deal with this matter in Jewish court. In addition as many of the comments have mentioned if this case was brought to a legitimate Jewish court and the husband refused to give his wife a Jewish divorce, he would be excommunicated from the community. Many orthodox Jewish newspapers such as the largest weekly orthodox paper the Jewish Press has a column devoted to helping women receive their get as well as list to publicly humiliate men who do not agree to give a divorce against the Jewish court. Orthodox organizations have actually helped to pass a law in New York to deal with women in this predicament. Failure to mention any of this is in my opinion worse then negligent but rather shows the blatant bias of the author.

January 11 2011 at 1:13 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rabbirutenberg's comment
zweifler

Don't you feel an obligation to assist this women and her husband to work out their differences? Why tell us how the comment falls short - when you apparently have not lived up to your responsibility to affect Tikun Olum

January 11 2011 at 11:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ccl995

Neither party seems to be thinking about their child. If he chooses not to see his child, because of the Sabbath than that is the choice he is making. I also agree that she is divorced legally and he is not “legally” obligated to provide her with a get. She is making the choice, for reasons most people understand, to not move on. This situation should not be compared to how women are treated in the Middle East. To make the comparison is absurd. It’s like comparing The United States to Afghanistan. THERE IS NO COMPARISON! There is a story here, but not the one advertised. The headline should read Women refuses to move despite being an American and legally divorced in her home state. It should also say father makes no time for his child do to his religious obligations. The real victim is their daughter who is being used as a pawn.

January 10 2011 at 8:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
luckyduffy

there is religion and there is secular law, and never the twain shall meet.

January 10 2011 at 7:02 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
kathryn3224

There is no room for this kind of attitude, regardless of religious orientation, in the United States of America. If he wishes to return to Israel - be my guest. He needs to lose his job within the halls of our Congress which grants freedom to all. Except for Gays - they don't seem to have the same rights the rest of us enjoy either.
It's all so tiring. Unfairness is a terrible thing in ANY society.

January 10 2011 at 9:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dollydoubleday59

This is directed to Rabbi Herzfeld.
You do not understand God. God controls our world. He is control of everything and to say he will not return because of a agunah is absurbed. He will return when he feels Israel is threatened and in danger. Like all you Jews and people in general never believed Jesus is the Messiah, never know him and you all will go to the wrath of God. You think that hell is living here you have no idea what hell is like. God plans to return in a vengence. I have never know God in that way. I myself are certainly glad that I am a completed Jew as a reborn Christian. The sinning will be gone when you see His lovely face, if you believe in the Lord and know that he came here and died for our sins on the cross.

January 10 2011 at 3:09 AM Report abuse -14 rate up rate down Reply

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