Divorce Court Battle Heats Up


Striking out at a controversial new religious divorce court that says it has freed more than 150 women from recalcitrant husbands, a group of 31 mainstream Orthodox rabbis has denounced the bet din as illegitimate.

The latest salvo in the war over agunot, or chained wives, is a six-paragraph statement initiated by Rabbi Kenneth Auman of the Young Israel of Flatbush and signed by pulpit rabbis from New York and New Jersey, charging that the new bet din “does not follow proper Get [divorce] procedures” and could jeopardize the religious status of women who remarry and have children.

The divorce court was started last year by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the 88-year-old standardbearer for Modern Orthodoxy, and Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, a 67-year-old Queens accountant and devotee of the late Orthodox sage Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.

Together with a third religious authority, who prefers anonymity, the court, known as the Bet Din L’Ba’Ayot, grants unconventional annulments to women whose husbands refuse to grant them religious divorces.

The basis for the annulments is that a marriage based on fraud is invalid, and if the woman knew that her husband would physically beat her, for example, she would not agree to the marriage. Circumventing the husbands, the court has declared these marriages void.

The overwhelming majority of Orthodox rabbis maintain, however, that there is no halachic basis for the court’s procedures. They say Orthodox Jewish law calls for the husband to grant the divorce of his own free will, though this has been a matter of wide interpretation over the centuries.

While condemning husbands who trap their wives in “dead marriages” and empathizing with the plight of these “trapped” women, the rabbis who signed the petition warn women to avoid the new court.

“We are certain that virtually no Orthodox rabbi would be willing to officiate at weddings of women who wish to remarry based upon … (the court’s annulments),” they wrote.

In recent months, several national Orthodox groups have become increasingly concerned about the growing popularity of the new court with women who say they are fed up with the status quo and the seeming failure of Orthodox rabbinic authorities to address the festering issue of agunot.

Several Orthodox groups have come out against the new court, including the Bet Din of America, affiliated with the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America; the National Council of Young Israel; and the Agudath Israel of America.

Also condemning the court as illegitimate was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas Party.

But Rabbi Auman’s petition expands the criticism to include more moderate members of the Modern Orthodox movement. Among the signatories are Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., a self-described “lefty” because of his leadership in Shvil Hazahav, which supports the Oslo Accords; Rabbi Simcha Krauss of the Young Israel of Hillcrest in Flushing, Queens, an advocate of women’s prayer groups; Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisroel in Teaneck, N.J.; and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt of the Riverdale Jewish Center in the Bronx.

Rabbi Goldin said he felt compelled to sign the statement because of the enormous consequences to the Jewish community regarding the legality of future marriages.

“I believe the actions of this bet din will not provide solutions but rather make matters worse,” he said.

Rabbi Krauss said “this has nothing to do with right-wingers or left-wingers but with the integrity of gitten” [Jewish divorces].”

“I will not make a joke of the halachic system,” he said, “and that’s what is happening here.”

None of the rabbis interviewed offered alternative solutions for the plight of agunot.

The petition warns that women using the new court will be considered adulterers for not having obtained a kosher divorce, and children from a new marriage will be considered illegitimate and unable to marry Orthodox Jews.

It does not mention Rabbi Rackman, instead focusing its condemnation on Rabbi Morgenstern, who the petition emphasizes “heretofore has had no affiliation with any recognized Beth Din, nor has recently served in the active rabbinate.”

The petition charges that Rabbi Morgenstern’s claim that he follows the teachings of Rabbi Feinstein “is false and misleading.”

It extensively cites Rabbi Yosef, who last fall called for a public condemnation of Rabbi Morgenstern.

But Rabbi Morgenstern said the petition is “deceitful” for citing his lack of membership in the organized rabbinic world while ignoring Rabbi Rackman, a former vice president of Yeshiva University and chancellor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“They know very well he is the backbone of our bet din,” Rabbi Morgenstern said. “They don’t want to mention him because he has credentials they consider important.”

He also asserted that Rabbi Yosef’s attack is based on the false assumption that the court deals with cases over the phone rather than in session.

“They have the right to disagree with me on halachic grounds,” said Rabbi Morgenstern. “Halacha has more than one face. But this approach is deceitful. Why didn’t these rabbis call to ask about our procedure?”

He said such behavior is not only unfair but a violation of Jewish law.

Rabbi Auman acknowledged that Rabbi Rackman is the ideological inspiration for the court, but said he did not mention Rabbi Rackman because he was told Rabbi Morgenstern actually founded and runs the court.

He said he did not discuss the issue with Rabbis Rackman or Morgenstern but relied on information from a woman who said she was a client of the new court and from a rabbi known to be critical of Rabbi Morgenstern.

Rabbi Rackman, reached in Israel, said he was not concerned about the petition, categorizing Rabbi Auman as “not at all in the spirit of, or a partner in, Modern Orthodoxy.”

He said Rabbi Auman has never asked to sit with him to discuss the court, despite the fact that once a month Rabbi Rackman attends services with his children and grandchildren at Rabbi Auman’s synagogue.

As a result of the petition, Honey Rackman, daughter-in-law of Rabbi Rackman and an official with Agunah Inc., a woman’s activist group, told The Jewish Week she has resigned from the Flatbush synagogue that her family has belonged to for more than 25 years.

Regarding the other signatories, Rabbi Rackman said he has been prepared for sustained criticism, noting that Rabbi Feinstein was severely criticized for a controversial decision he made in the 1950s restoring legal social status to thousands of potential illegitimate children. In the end, the decision was accepted widely.

“We’re doing nothing different,” Rabbi Rackman said.

He added that legal sources for the new court’s rulings will be published in several weeks, though Rabbi Morgenstern said he didn’t expect the document, to be called “Hatarat Agunot,” would change any minds. He said the real issue is money and that his court is affecting the ability of establishment rabbis to collect divorce fees.

“I am breaking a monopoly,” Rabbi Morgenstern said. “This issue is a cocktail of greed plus theology.”

But several rabbis interviewed disputed this, declaring their concern is for the integrity of the halachic process, and noting that they are not personally involved in the business of religious divorces.