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Focus on Issues: Orthodox Groups Attack 2 Rabbis Who Set Up Court to End Marriages

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The fireworks aren’t ending for a 2-year-old religious court that annuls marriages to free Orthodox women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish divorce.

Denunciation of the court, which to date has dissolved the marriages of 216 couples, has come from almost every major Orthodox organization, making it a rare issue uniting the centrists and the fervently Orthodox.

The latest salvo came this week from Agudath Israel of America, whose religious arbiters, the Council of Torah Sages, issued a statement calling the rabbis involved in the new Beit Din “arrogant `Orthodox rabbis'” who “have utilized spurious `halachic’ reasoning to permit married Jewish women to marry again without benefit of a religious divorce.'”

The religious court in question — the Beit Din L’Ba’ayot Agunot, or Court for the Problems of Chained Women — was established by Rabbis Emanuel Rackman, a widely-respected Orthodox elder statesman and chancellor of the Israel’s Orthodox Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, who is an accountant by trade.

There is another well-known Orthodox rabbi who has been quietly annulling invalid marriages for years — but he utilizes different criteria than Rackman and Morgenstern, and takes issue with their process.

Rackman and Morgenstern, in interviews, said they annul marriages according to halachah, or Jewish law, following formulas employed by great Orthodox rabbis of the past, including Rabbis Isaac Elchanan, Moshe Feinstein and Eliyahu Klotzkin.

They were prompted to act by frustration with what they describe as increasing corruption among rabbis who collude with husbands to extort money from women in need of a get — or Jewish divorce — and with the lack of progress on this issue by rabbinic authorities over the last several decades.

“How long would we wait, until Moshiach comes?” asked Rackman, referrring to the Messiah.

Women who they have freed from punishing marriages credit the new court with being compassionate where other rabbis are not.

Nechama Katan found her way to Morgenstern about a year after her husband demanded $5 million from her father as the price of her get.

She and her husband, who had been married for four years, were living fervently Orthodox lives in New York. The whole time, she says, her husband was emotionally abusive. When he began beating her so hard her skin was bruised, she left him.

The first rabbi she consulted, a prominent communal leader connected with Yeshiva University, advised her to “stick it out because I would never get a get” even though he knew she was being beaten, she said.

The second rabbi she consulted advised her to pay her husband $10,000 to convince him to give her the get. Further efforts to reach a settlement led to nothing but frustration. Then a rabbi told her about Morgenstern.

“He was a mensch. He’s the only person I know out there doing the right thing,” said Katan, now living in Portland, Ore. with her two young daughters. Their father legally relinquished all parental rights last week.

Morgenstern annulled her marriage and issued a get.

Annulments like this one have engendered fierce criticism.

It has played out publicly in a long-running series of articles and letters to the editor in The Jewish Press, an Orthodox newspaper, and in The New York Jewish Week.

The Orthodox rabbinic committee in Morgenstern’s Queens, N.Y., neighborhood, has banned him from area synagogues.

“This is not a fight against me. It’s a fight against women,” said Morgenstern. “This is the issue of male dominance and chauvinism, and keeping women under the foot.”

The Rackman-Morgenstern solution relies in part on the theory that abusive husbands suffer from mental illness, a position that the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America disputes.

“If the wife wants out of the marriage and the husband doesn’t, is that evidence that a husband is a nut and always was?” said David Zwiebel, a senior official of Agudath Israel.

“The bias in Judaism is against divorce on demand. In a large majority of cases, even if a couple is not happy, Jewish law will try and tell the couple to stay together,” he said. “That bias is inherent in the halachah, and frankly, in our society we ought to say that’s a strength of our system, not a weakness.”

Some more sympathetic to the new court’s goals say that it applies the criteria for annulment too liberally.

One of those is Rabbi Mordecai Tendler, a respected religious leader in the Orthodox enclave of Monsey, N.Y.

He told JTA that he has annulled hundreds of marriages over the last 30 years.

He applies the criteria mapped out by his grandfather, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who “freed” women whose husbands refused to grant them a Jewish divorce if the wedding itself was not Orthodox or if there had been some technical flaw in the ceremony.

Finding some other halachically legitimate basis to annul a marriage, if one spouse, for example, hides a significant pre-existing condition before the wedding — like homosexuality, a life-threatening disease or serious mental illness that has not been cured or controlled — is much more difficult, Tendler said.

He said he annuls a marriage under these circumstances only a couple of times a year and after months of research.

Tendler, along with other Feinstein descendants, has publicly denounced what Rackman and Morgenstern are doing as a misapplication of his methods.

Rackman and Morgenstern, unlike others, will dissolve the union if a problem like abusiveness, which was not well established before the wedding, becomes apparent after the marriage.

“We can be much more liberal in our interpretation of conditions that would warrant annulment because of our deeper understanding of the problems of mental health than Rabbi Feinstein could have possessed,” Rackman said.

“You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to know that what comes out even 20 years after marriage can show a predisposition to something.”

Women have come to Morgenstern’s accounting office in Queens, N.Y., where he conducts most of his New York area business, from the mid-West and South, and as far away as Canada, England and France, he said.

Any woman with one of his annulments can remarry, and more than one-quarter of them already have, said Morgenstern. “I have a list of 100 rabbis all over the world willing to do it.”

But not every woman freed by the Beit Din is finding that it’s made it possible for her to get on with her life.

“Yaffa,” who asked that her real name not be used, obtained a get from Morgenstern last year.

But when she recently tried to sign up with an Orthodox singles’ matchmaking service, they asked for a copy of her Jewish divorce and said they wouldn’t accept one from Morgenstern.

“If it’s not acceptable to people, it’s almost worthless,” Yaffa said. Despite these problems, Rackman says he is getting quiet support from a number of Orthodox rabbis, and vows that the Beit Din will not collapse under the controversy it has generated.

“The Beit Din is going to accomplish at least one thing: That the item will be on the Jewish agenda for a long time to come until a better solution is found or until the solution we have found enjoys wider acceptance.”

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