Religious Divorce Dispute Leads to Secular Protest

January 20, 2011 by  


By Mark Oppenheimer

This should have been a good New Year’s for Aharon Friedman, a 34-year-old tax counsel for the Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee. He spent time with his 3-year-old daughter, and could have been thinking about the influence he will have starting Wednesday, when his boss, Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, becomes chairman of the powerful tax-writing committee.

Instead, Mr. Friedman, an Orthodox Jew, finds himself scrutinized in the Jewish press, condemned by important rabbis, and attacked in a YouTube video showing about 200 people protesting outside his Silver Spring, Md., apartment on Dec. 19. They were angered by Mr. Friedman’s refusal to give his wife, Tamar Epstein, 27, a Jewish decree of divorce, known as a get.

The Friedman case has become emblematic of a torturous issue in which only a husband can “give” a get. While Jewish communities have historically pressured obstinate husbands to give gets, this was a very rare case of seeking to shame the husband in the secular world.

Holding signs saying, “Do the right thing” and “Free your wife,” the crowd included religious women with their heads covered, men in skullcaps and a rabbi with a bullhorn who shouted, “Withholding a get is abusive.”

Another rabbi took the unusual step of writing to Mr. Friedman’s employer, asking that he lean on Mr. Friedman to grant the Jewish divorce.

Mr. Friedman and Ms. Epstein have been civilly divorced since April and share custody of their daughter, but they are still married according to Jewish law. And without a get neither he nor Ms. Epstein can remarry within the faith. She is considered an agunah, or chained woman.

Although the majority of men in Jewish divorces grant their wives a get with little fuss, the husbands who refuse — it is estimated there are several hundred agunot in the United States today — can provoke a clash between religious folkways and secular divorce law.

Usually these conflicts are resolved quietly, within the religious community. But Ms. Epstein’s frustrated supporters took to the streets.

Like most marriages that end badly, this one began hopefully. On April 23, 2006, Aharon Friedman of Brooklyn married Tamar Epstein, seven years his junior, of suburban Philadelphia. The next year, they had a daughter.

According to court records and interviews with Ms. Epstein, her lawyer and Mr. Friedman, who refused to be quoted publicly, Ms. Epstein said in March 2008 that she wanted a divorce. Her husband said he hoped to reconcile but the next month, she moved with their daughter to her parents’ home in suburban Philadelphia.

Both parties wanted their divorce resolved by a beit din, a Jewish court. But both also availed themselves of civil court: Mr. Friedman to get an emergency order to have his daughter returned to Maryland (it was denied), and Ms. Epstein, thereafter, in a countersuit for divorce. Both have since filed numerous other civil motions in a messy case.

An Orthodox rabbinic court in Baltimore still had not ruled when a Maryland civil court heard the case, in June 2009. It issued its custody order two months later, and in April 2010, the divorce became final.

All parties have said that Mr. Friedman is angry about the custody order, which grants him three weekends a month with his daughter, two of them in Philadelphia, beginning at 6 p.m. on Fridays. As a religious Jew, Mr. Friedman will not drive from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday — so he cannot see his daughter until Sunday.
The custody order is “a joke,” said Yisroel Belsky, a prominent Brooklyn rabbi. “The court decided in a bullheaded way not to respect the Shabbos,” or Sabbath, he said in a interview.

And the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington issued a statement saying that the parties had not yet exhausted the rabbinical courts, suggesting it was premature to blame Mr. Friedman for withholding the get.

But other rabbis have argued that it is Jewish custom to give a get once divorce terms have been settled, and with no possibility of reconciliation.

“Even if one party acts wrongly to the other, it is never correct either for the husband to withhold a get or for the wife to refuse a get when a marriage is clearly over,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Reiss, who is not involved in this dispute.

Ms. Epstein eventually sought help from the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, or ORA, an Orthodox group in New York. The group organized the Dec. 19 rally outside Mr. Friedman’s apartment. After videos were posted on the Internet, Washington Jewish Week ran an editorial with the headline “Unchain This Woman.”

Ms. Epstein, still living with her parents and working as a nurse, said: “It’s been over two and a half years since we separated, all I want is to be able to move on and rebuild my life for my sake and my daughter’s sake. And I’ve been held hostage.”

On Dec. 20, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Washington, who supports Ms. Epstein, wrote to Jon Traub, the Republican staff director of the Ways and Means Committee, accusing Mr. Friedman of “psychological terrorism.” Rabbi Herzfeld urged Mr. Traub to “tell Aharon to give the get immediately,” and warned that “it is appropriate to also rally in the vicinity of Aharon’s work place.”

Rabbi Herzfeld said Mr. Traub told him, in a phone call, that this was not a matter for the Ways and Means Committee.

But for Ms. Epstein’s supporters, this is a matter for everyone.

Rabbi Herzfeld told The New York Times, “I don’t think the Messiah can come, as long as there is one agunah in the world.”

The homepage of The Jewish Star featured Rabbi Jeremy Stern leading a protest to pressure Aharon Friedman to give his wife a religious divorce.

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