In a dramatic ruling seemingly from beyond the grave, one of the world’s foremost experts on Jewish law has declared that a young girl whose father secretly married her off is free from the vow of betrothal her father made.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the few halachic leaders who could claim authority in almost every corner of the Orthodox Jewish world, died in February 1995.
But in August 1994, several months before he passed away, he ruled that Sarah Leah Goldstein is not bound by the marriage or in need of a Jewish divorce because her father had not produced the witnesses necessary to legitimized his vow.
Sarah’s father, Israel Goldstein, of the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., had in 1993 revived a long-unused practice called kedusha ketana, in which a man acts as his minor daughter’s proxy and marries her off.
Goldstein act, believed to be the first time that anyone used kedusha ketana in a malevolent way, was part of an effort to punish his estranged wife, sources say. His wife has been trying to obtain a get, or Jewish divorce decree, from Goldstein for five years.
Goldstein, who married off his daughter when she was 11, has refused to name the groom and the two male witnesses required to make a marriage legal.
Word of Auerbach’s ruling comes as other Orthodox authorities, including the Council of Torah Sages of the Agudath Israel of America, an organization representing fervently Orthodox Jews, have been issuing statements strongly condemning the practice.
It comes also as the New York district attorney, Charles Hynes, is considering whether to bring charges against Israel Goldstein for endangering the welfare of a minor, and as Gita Goldstein, Sarah’s mother, and her attorney consider filing a civil case against him.
Despite the outcry, Auerbach was the first widely respected authority to have found a way within halachah, or Jewish law, to invalidate the unions.
His decision is expected to nullify the acts of any men similarly marrying off their daughters and to deter those considering such a step.
“It’s a terrible, terrible weapon that’s been destroyed” with the Auerbach ruling, said Rabbi Eliahu Rominek of Queens, N.Y., a Torah scholar who brought the Goldstein case to Auerbach’s attention last August and authored the legal response that Auerbach approved.
“There are a lot of men waiting in wings, waiting to see how this plays out, to decide if they’ll do it to their daughters,” said Rominek in a telephone interview from his yeshiva in Far Rockaway, Queens.
“If Goldstein would be successful” in making his young daughter a married woman, “you’d have an avalanche here” of similar cases, he said.
There is believed to be only one other publicly known case of kedushei ketana, or minor marriages, that has taken place in the last few years — that of Suri and Yossi Sharashefsky’s daughter in Brooklyn. However, Yossi Sharashefsky did not have his act validated by a religious court, as Israel Goldstein did. As a result, several Orthodox rabbis have said they do not consider it to be as serious a concern as the Goldstein case.
Other cases are rumored to have taken place, though no names have been connected to them.
A representative group that calls itself the Sholom Bayis Organization said in an interview that the group has distributed hundreds of copies of booklet called the Kedusha Ketana Handbook explaining how fathers can marry off their daughters.
The group intends to distribute a total of 10,000 copies, said the representative, a man named Yossi who refused to give his last name.
Gita Goldstein, who only learned of the Auerbach ruling through a reporter this week, welcomed the news but remains concerned about its widespread acceptance.
“I am relieved, so relieved. This is like an enormous weight is off me, but I am still concerned that it’s not the end,” she said from her home in Montreal. “It’s not over, it’s not finished because people could still question the validity.”
A. David Stern, a New York attorney representing her in two efforts of bring charges against her husband, reacted to the ruling, saying, “It’s a wonderful step forward but I don’t know whether it will be accepted by the whole Jewish world or whether it will cause dissension.”
“I’m concerned that premature elation could be damaging because someone could say, `It looks like it’s solved, let’s not get involved,’ and all of it will fall through,” said Stern, who is Orthodox.
“I don’t want premature confidence to cause people to change their course of action by relying on it,” said Stern, citing concerns that both the Orthodox and legal worlds would not continue to pursue the issue.
Goldstein said her daughter is also happy that the whole thing is over, said Goldstein, though “it’s very hard for her to understand this. I try not to go into it too much with her because it’s to strange and painful.”
Goldstein has sole custody of bother her daughter and her son, David Aron, who is 10, because her husband did not ask for custody or visitation or show up for any of their custody hearings, she said.
Attempts to reach Israel Goldstein were unsuccessful.
Gita Goldstein had been working with two Montreal rabbis to resolve her daughter’s plight.
In May 1994, the local Montreal rabbis turned to Rominek, a scholar of Torah, for help. Rominek researched the issue, wrote up a teshuvah, or Jewish legal response to the problem, and then asked leading rabbinic authorities, all of whom are based in Jerusalem, to rule on the issue.
“I realized that the only way this could have significance was if I had their backing,” said Rominek.
All but Auerbach declined to address the issue, he said.
The posek, or decider of Jewish law, studied the issue for a week and, according to Rominek, on Aug. 7, 1994, told him that the girl is not bound to the marriage.
Auerbach then told Rominek to inform the Montreal community about his decision and to have anyone who questioned it call him in Jerusalem.
Rominek said he told the Montreal rabbis of Auerbach’s decision, he said, but they did not spread the word and several months later, Auerbach died.
When the issue of kedushei Ketana became a widespread concern in the Orthodox world, after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported it on May 16, Rominek began again checking into the matter and found that the decision had not been promulgated.
Because Auerbach did not write his own response, or sign Rominek’s, there were concerns that some in the Orthodox world would question the validity of the sage’s position. So they lined up other prominent authorities to verify the position Auerbach had taken.
Auerbach’s secretary, Rabbi Elimelech Cooperman, and son, Rabbi Baruch, are publicly attesting to Auerbach’s position, according to Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, who is publicizing the teshuvah.
Schwartz is the head of the religious court connected to the Rabbinical council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in America.
Two other prominent rabbis — Zalman Nehemia Goldberg, Auerbach’s son-in-law and a judge on the Jerusalem Bais Din, and Moshe Sternbuch, a member of the Edah Hacharedis, or fervently Orthodox community — concurred with the halachic position about kedushei ketana, according to a statement.
They have written their own treatises on the topic, Schwartz said.
Rominek said he feels confident that Auerbach’s decision will not only free Sarah Leah Goldstein from a life of misery, but that it will also deter other men from trying the same thing.
“I expect it to be authoritative throughout the frum (religious) world,” he said. “You’ll always have some people griping, but overwhelmingly, it will be received will great joy and confidence.”