The "get wars" in the fervently Orthodox community are turning uglier, and the latest victims are girls younger than 12.
As many as 20 girls who have not yet reached the traditional Jewish age of majority have been unknowingly married off by their fathers, according to Orthodox sources familiar with the cases.
The fathers are apparently using their daughters as tools of retribution against their wives in messy divorce battles. They are holding their daughters’ lives hostage until they obtain what they want from their wives.
The practice forces the girls into a situation that can only be resolved with a get, or religious divorce, that only their husbands can grant. In most of these cases, the girls do not even know to whom they have been effectively married.
This recent practice, known as kedusha ketana, appears to be a new twist on an old problem for agunot, or women who are unable to obtain religious divorces from their husbands.
"This shows what happens when the agunah problem is ignored," said Rivka Haut, co-president of Agunah Inc., a New York-based organization that advocates on behalf of agunot.
"This is the next stage. They are not content to just torture their wives, but are now tortuning their daughters, too," Haut said.
There are estimated to be thousands of observant women in North America whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. In many cases, a husband will demand large sums of money or custody of the children before he agrees to give the divorce.
But the tactic of betrothing young girls is apparently new, say critics, many of whom expressed alarm at this latest development in the battle for a get.
Betrothing a daughter younger than 12 has not been practiced in contemporary times, said halachic experts.
And until the past year, it has never been used as a weapon of retribution, according to several rabbis.
In earlier times, when arranged marriage at an early age was the norm and a girl required a dowry, families would sometimes betroth a minor daughter if they had the money for it and were not sure that they would in the future.
Today, however, the men involved are usually seeking custody of their children or possession of property, such as houses or cars. The men are seeking a new form of leverage over their wives, most of whom have obtained civil divorces, but cannot date or remarry within Orthodox world.
Once word gets out in the tightly-knit communities that these girls have been betrothed, they are made pariahs, said sources within the community.
The fathers are not required to divulge the names of the men to whom they have betrothed the girls, and rabbinic authorities have not determined a way of forcing them to do so.
In one case, a father who lives in Boro Park, a religious neighborhood in Brooklyn, betrothed his oldest daughter, who was then 11. He has threatened to do the same to a second daughter, who is now approaching her 12th birthday, unless he get custody of his children.
A civil court had denied him custody of his children and visitation rights. The girls live with their mother in Montreal.
The father has not revealed the name of the man to whom he betrothed his daughter and the judges on the beit din, or religious court, in Boro Part accepted his statement of betrothal as valid, according to one Montreal rabbi involved in the situation.
He has also refused to give his wife a religious divorce and claimed that she owned him $120,000. Canadian and American rabbis raised the money to pay him off so that he would give her the divorce, said a source familiar with the case.
When they went to a Boro Part beit din and handed over the money in cash, the man then refused to sign the divorce, saying that he had never made any such agreement.
Fervently Orthodox rabbis appear uniformly dismayed by the girl’s betrothals, but they have not found a solution to the dilemma.
"The rabbis are very upset and we haven’t decided how to react to it," said Rabbi Solomon Herbst, a former head of the religious court connected with the Rabbinical Council of America, the mainstream Orthodox rabbinic body.
"It is so painful that I cannot even talk about it," added Herbst, head of his own Orthodox religious court, named the Beit Din Tzedek-Ein Sof.
Rabbi David Zweibel of Agudath Israel of America agreed.
"This is a tragedy of the highest order," Zweibel said. "I’ve heard rabbonim describe people who do this as evil. I prefer the term `maniac.’"
"Certainly no one condones using this as a weapon" said Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz, a judge at the religious court in Monsey, N.Y., an area heavily populated by fervently Orthodox Jews.
"Rabbonim and batei din (religious courts) have met and have been discussing ideas" of what to do about the issue, Malinowitz said.
Haut thinks that the solution is for Orthodox rabbis to declare the betrothals meaningless.
"These husbands and fathers have tremendous power over women. Now they’re showing it also over their young daughters," Haut said.
Calling on rabbis to "break this power," Haut said.
"If every rabbinic organization issued a declaration that men cannot betroth their young daughters and the girls should in no way be stigmatized by the Orthodox community, and that they will perform these girls’ marriages when the time comes, and that rabbis will not take the betrothals seriously, that would put an end to it."
"We believe that the rabbis must find a halachic solution, and we believe that it is within their capacity" to do so, Haut said.
Zweibel believes that this is not necessarily the case.
"Unfortunately or fortunately, halacha is something that cannot be easily manipulated," he said.
"We don’t subscribe to the idea that where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halachic way," Zweibel said.
As they discuss the issue, rabbis are now in the process of deciding whether these girls are required to cover their hair, as married women do.
Each of the dozen Orthodox rabbis interviewed has heard of two or three cases of this betrothal, all of which have happened during the past year.
But according to a representative of the Shalom Bayis (Peaceful Home) Organization, at least 20 girls have been betrothed by their fathers in the past several months alone.
Shalom Bayis is a newly established group whose goal is the eradication of divorce in the Orthodox Jewish community, according to the representative, who identified himself only as Yossi.
The organization has blanketed religious neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens with leaflets urging all men to wait five years before giving their wives a religious divorce, and stating that custody of all boys older than 6 "must be given to the husband as required by halacha."
Yossi said even though his group does not condone the child betrothals, husbands have been "pushed to the wall" by their wives and the civil courts before committing their daughters.
"It’s against Torah for a man to have his home and possessions taken away from him," he said.
"Some women have put their kids in public school to spite their husbands," he said. "This blackmail works both ways."
He said the fathers had been threatened with physical harm "by family members and goons hired" by the estranged wife.
These fathers, he said, view the betrothals "as life insurance."
"Nothing’s going to happen to them as long as the wife needs to know who the girl is betrothed to," Yossi said.