Rabbis recently freed 12-year-old Sarah Leah Goldstein from a marriage her father had arranged because he did not produce the two witnesses required to make it valid under Jewish law.
Now her mother has initiated legal action in civil court to force Israel Goldstein to name the witnesses and the groom so that she can sue them, as well as her ex-husband.
In 1993, Goldstein married off his daughter in a ceremony known as “kedusha ketana,” or minor marriage, an archaic Jewish ritual which had not been employed in contemporary times.
Goldstein recently said that he was doing it to punish his ex-wife, Gita Goldstein, for going to civil court to obtain a divorce. He has refused to grant her a Jewish divorce.
In September 1993, Goldstein walked into the Tausig religious court in the borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., and announced that he had married his daughter “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” He refused to divulge the names of the groom and the two witnesses that are required for the “kedusha katana.”
The rabbinic judges on the court accepted as fact that he had committed his daughter to marriage according to halachah, or Jewish law.
When this marriage and suspicions of others came to public attention in May 1995, through an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Orthodox Jewish world — even those rabbis who for the preceding year and a half knew of the betrothals — responded with unusual alacrity, ruling that Goldstein was not to be believed because he did not provide the witnesses to verify what he had done.
Therefore, according to prominent rabbis in Israel and North America, Sarah Leah Goldstein was now free to live as an innocent child and to marry the man of her own choosing when the time comes.
But her mother and her attorney, A. David Stern, are not so sure that the issue has been laid to rest.
The rabbis’ rulings “did not really solve the whole problem,” according to Stern.
Goldstein “could reveal the witnesses at any time. It’s a sword of Damocles hanging over her (Sarah Leah’s) head until the entire issue is put to rest,” he said.
Stern said he is initiating legal action in civil court “to make sure that people who participate in this type of thing know that there is a price to pay.”
He took the first step by filing an “order to show cause” in New York’s Supreme Court, which is a trial court. The order requires Goldstein to appear in court Aug. 16 and respond to the complaint.
In marrying off his young daughter, Goldstein violated Sarah Leah’s “basic human, civil and constitutional rights,” according to court papers submitted by Stern.
When asked whether he was worried that forcing Goldstein to name the witnesses and groom would put Sarah Leah back into a married state, Stern said, “It’s still hanging over her. My objective is to remove all clouds from above this girl’s head.”
Sarah Leah lives in Montreal with her mother and 10 year old brother.
Stern has also asked the Brooklyn district attorney to prosecute Goldstein as a criminal for endangering the welfare of his minor daughter.
“The matter is under review,” according to Patrick Clark, spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
Although several messages were left for Israel Goldstein at his home in Borough Park, where he lives with his parents, he did not return the calls.
A civil or criminal trial could raise questions about civil courts being used to decide religious matters.
“There are church-state issues that will be raised,” Stern said.
However, there is a precedent for the civil courts dealing with the marriage of a minor in a religious ceremony.
In a 1976 case, a black Muslim man named Ibrahim Ben Benu, who had married his 13-year-old daughter to a 17-year-old boy in a Muslim ceremony as “his ticket to paradise,” was found guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, according to court records of that trial.
In the Ben Benu case, as in the Goldstein’s, the father was divorced from the mother, who had custody of their children. In both cases, the mothers had both been granted court orders of protection against their ex-husbands, who had threatened them with harm.
The court papers filed against Israel Goldstein bring to light the damage that Sarah Leah’s mother, and two psychologists, feel has been done to the girl as a result of her father’s malicious act.
In an affidavit, Gita Goldstein testified that “what Israel Goldstein has done is to make her a pariah in our community; he has forced her to choose between her freedom to marry and have children, and her desire to continue living in accordance with her religious beliefs.”
She continued: “I have tried as much as possible to shield her from the fallout from these events, but I know, and live constantly with terror of the moment when she will realize the full impact of what has happened to her.”
Included in the affidavit are excerpts of a report prepared by two Montreal psychologists, who wrote that “the psychological and social implications of this act on Sarah Leah will cause her overwhelming hardship and shame in her life.”
“It will make her an object of unwholesome attention and scorn in her peer group. She will surely become the object of rejection and ridicule,” they continued.
“The anxiety created by this situation is likely to interfere with her academic progress, evoke acting out behavior, legitimize rebellion against her community, make her feel disempowered and abandoned, which may lead to self destructive acts,” wrote the psychologists.
One of the psychologists, who counseled the entire Goldstein family until Israel’s separation from Gita, withdrew from working with Gita and Sarah Leah, according to the affidavit, “because she began being harassed and receiving threatening phone calls from Israel Goldstein.”