Op-Ed: Lawmakers have no place in religious lives — even for agunot

NEW YORK (JTA) — When it comes to politicians meddling in people’s religious lives, the answer should be clear: Don’t do it!

Neither members of Congress nor congressional staffers should be pressuring any individuals to adhere to any particular religious code.

As obvious as that seems, sometimes it gets more complicated, as the case of Aharon Friedman reminds us. Friedman is a staff member in the office of U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Democrat. Friedman also is an Orthodox Jew in the midst of a messy divorce.

Actually, from a civil standpoint, the divorce is over. According to the state, Friedman’s marriage to Tamar Epstein was terminated last April. Jewish law, however, says the couple is still married as Friedman refuses to give his wife a get, or a Jewish bill of divorce.

The New York Times reported that the couple is locked in a bitter controversy over custody and visitation issues regarding their 3-year-old daughter. It also seems likely that their ongoing struggle is rooted in the fact that it was Epstein who originally left Friedman, and he remains hurt and angry. So like many of us, Friedman is punishing his wife for having hurt him. That is not a good excuse and it doesn’t even matter in this case.

The real issue here is not two people who fail to see that they have a religious obligation to end their marriage with as much holiness as they entered it. The real issue here is that Jewish groups are asking Friedman’s employers, both Camp and staffers of the House Ways and Means Committee, to pressure Friedman or even to fire him, if he will not grant his wife a Jewish divorce.

Is it really appropriate for Jewish activists and rabbis to advocate for that kind of religious pressure? I don’t know if it is legal for an employers to do so, but I’m sure it is unwise to ask them — especially when the employer is the federal government.

What’s next, demanding the termination of those who fail to contribute the appropriate amount to charity or fail to pay their synagogue dues?

I do not mean to trivialize the tragedy of the situation. In fact, outwardly at least, Friedman appears to be a scoundrel who should be pressed to the wall within his religious community to grant his wife her divorce. But asking the government to do the work of a private religious community — to enforce its religious rules — simply is not proper, especially in this case.

Those who want Camp to fire Friedman or Hill staffers to shun him are avoiding the real challenge within the Orthodox community, i.e., that we still embrace a one-sided system in which only men have the power to divorce. Rather than address either that inequity or mobilize the Jewish community to create real pressure that affords no cover to men who exploit that inequity, people ask others to behave more morally than the community
from which the problems emerged. Bad solution.

Remedies exist to this situation, both proactive ones to prevent further occurrences and others that address those who are languishing as wives tied to mean-spirited and vindictive husbands. The only question is why people lack the will to use them. In that sense, the entire community is to blame for Epstein’s suffering.

We could change the law, though that is not likely to happen in the Orthodox community. We could prevent future occurrences by insisting that no Orthodox weddings will be performed without the use of a Jewishly binding prenuptial agreement that assures the wife’s ability to obtain a divorce should the couple ever separate. We did the same for ketubah, so why not for the prenup?

Finally, we could get serious about punishing husbands who manage to abuse their wives even after they no longer live together.

In other words, it’s time to do our own dirty work. In fact, doing this work isn’t dirty at all — it’s holy work and it’s ours to do. And as the old saying goes, there’s no time like the present.

(Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right.")

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