On a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, the sidewalks of lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan are bustling with last-minute holiday shoppers. But two flights up, in a nondescript building near the Banana Republic, a half-dozen rabbis and laypeople are concerned only with the liberation of Jewish women.
They comprise a controversial new rabbinical court, or bet din, which is granting speedy, affordable divorces to agunot — known as “woman in chains” — whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce, or get.
The court is embroiled in international controversy, with a major Israeli rabbi condemning it as unqualified. At home, a group of rabbis in Queens have threatened to excommunicate the court’s rabbinic authority.
The court convenes in a small room dominated by a rectangular table and a few framed pictures of Israel. It’s an unlikely setting for what advocates hope will transform the plight of agunot.
Bracha, an attractive, dark-skinned Israeli, enters the room, head slightly bowed and nervous. She softly says she is in fear for her life from her estranged husband and took out an order of protection against him.
The thirtysomething mother of three recounts the episodes where he has threatened to kill her, and physically abused her. She has a civil divorce but her husband, who pays no child support, won’t give her a get, required by halacha, or Jewish law, in order for her to remarry or have relations with another man.
“I feel myself sick because of this,” she tells the court. “I have children to care for. I can’t live like this.”
Rachel is an observant Brooklynite wearing a blue head covering and long skirt. She painfully recounts learning of her husband’s secret addictions, his angry threats against her and her children, his violations of religious law, and how several Brooklyn rabbis totally ignored her pleas for help. One rabbi, she said, lied to police on behalf of her husband, who recently had contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the rabbi’s yeshiva.
Allison, dressed in jeans and a sweater, confides that her estranged husband is living with another woman but refuses to release her from the marriage and let her proceed with her life.
Saying that the mainstream Orthodox rabbinical courts have failed them, and that they cannot take the physical and psychological abuse anymore, these women, whose names have been changed, last week turned to the bet din of Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman.
Rabbi Morgenstern, a short, frenetic 67-year-old accountant from Queens, is determined to liberate these women from what he calls their dead marriages. He is joined in what he considers a sacred duty by Rabbi Rackman, the 80-year-old chancellor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University.
“That these situations cry out for justice is obvious,” Rabbi Rackman says. “We are morally obligated to relieve them of the threats and fear.”
Rabbi Morgenstern declares that no woman will be turned away from his bet din and that 99 percent of them are not charged for its services.
“No Jewish women should be a slave,” he declares. “You can’t take a woman and force her with a club to have sex with a man.”
The idea seems to be catching on: Since setting up shop in June, Rabbi Morgenstern’s court has granted nearly 60 gets to women from all over the country. Some came from California and the Midwest. Just last week, Rabbi Morgenstern received a half-dozen phone calls from women in Israel who heard about his court and want to fly to New York to arrange for a get.
The court has granted gets to women from all sectors of the Jewish community: ultra-Orthodox, Satmar, Persian, Russian, Ashkenazic, says Susan Aranoff, co-founder of Agunah Inc., a women’s advocacy group. “It covers the whole range.”
In essence, Rabbi Morgenstern finds legal loopholes to invalidate the marriage and grant a get and/or an annulment. For example, he will find technical flaws in the original marriage ceremony, like declaring that the witnesses were not kosher because they were not Sabbath observers.
More likely, in the case of physical abuse of the wives or addictions of the husbands, Rabbi Morgenstern will declare those problems to be pre-existing conditions of the husband hidden at the time of marriage. In other words, he rules that the men perpetrated a fraud, thus voiding or annulling the marriage.
But several leading experts on Jewish divorce law told The Jewish Week that the new bet din is “totally without foundation.”
“Their fundamental approach is profoundly flawed,” said one Orthodox expert on Jewish marital law who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They are engaging in a profound misunderstanding motivated by their profound love for Jewish women. They have only the best of intentions, from which the road to hell is paved.”
But Rabbi Morgenstern says he studied for years with the late Torah sage Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to gain the knowledge and authority to rule on these cases. He cites Maimonides and says the process he is employing was performed by rabbis as far back as 1,000 years ago.
The chained wives say the withholding of the get is being used as another weapon by their husbands to extort money in a divorce settlement, influence the child custody issue or merely for spite.
Without the get, wives are put into Jewish limbo. If she dates or remarries, she is considered an adulteress, and any resulting children are classified as bastards for religious purposes.
In Rachel’s case, Rabbi Morgenstern ruled that the husband’s alcoholism and sex addictions were pre-existing conditions, and would grant an annulment. That was after taking testimony, inspecting legal documents and asking several pointed questions.
“Were you beaten? Were you brutalized?” he inquires.
A positive answer is enough for the court, which quickly agrees the wife should be granted a get.
Bracha learned about the court from a newspaper story.
Following questions about the alleged brutality, her children, her past and her future plans, the court agrees to grant her an annulment after about 20 minutes. Rabbi Morgenstern then writes the get/annulment, which the court keeps. Bracha gets a certificate.
“I want you to understand the State of Israel may not recognize this,” Rabbi Morgenstern cautions her, should she decide to return to her native country.
He adds that remarrying should not be a problem here or in Israel because the Supreme Rabbinic Court of America Inc., a 30-person group of which Rabbi Morgenstern is a member, would identify a rabbi to marry her “in an instant.”
Next comes the ritual.
In order to mute critics, Rabbi Morgenstern grants the get several ways to cover the varying rabbinic positions. “When we get finished, we touch base with 20 positions that are in dispute,” he says.
In Bracha’s case, she is asked to “receive” the get several times. Acceptance of the piece of paper means she is free, the rabbi tells her.
“I feel like I’ve been let out of jail,” Bracha confides to an observer.
But a rabbinic expert with a major Orthodox group said the Morgenstern bet din is profoundly misinterpreting Jewish law. He said the bet din wrongly includes in its definition of fraud instances where it cannot be proven that the problem was preexisting and that the husband knew about it.
As to whether a physically abused woman should be quickly given a get, the rabbi said: “The fact that [the husband is] beating her doesn’t mean the marriage is void.”
The bet din and Rabbi Morgenstern’s methods have incurred the wrath of Orthodox rabbis from Jamaica Estates to Jerusalem. Former Israeli Chief Sephardic Rabbi Ovadia Yossef recently denounced the bet din as unqualified and said he was falsely claimed as a supporter.
A rabbinic group, Rabbonei Kew Garden Hills, wrote a letter of censure warning Rabbi Morgenstern to stop granting gets “or we will take steps against you.”
But a strong supporter of the bet din, Rabbi Moshe Antelman, the Israeli-based head the Supreme Rabbinic Court of America Inc., countered that “If the Kew Gardens rabbinate persists in the attacks, we shall have no choice but to fight them.”
Rabbi Morgenstern said that besides theology, what lies at the heart of his critics is economics, because his court is a financial threat to rival rabbinical courts who charge as much as $600 a session.
Supporters of the new bet din say that critics should better spend their energy trying to find solutions to the agunot problem rather than attacking those who are at least trying to help.
“How can rabbis who claim that they care so much about agunot not fasten on to every available remedy?” asked Honey Rackman, an advocate for agunot and Rabbi Rackman’s daughter-in-law.
Said Aranoff: “It’s disappointing that nobody, meaning rabbis, is calling to inquire about our proceedings and [is considering] joining us.”
Asked why, she said, “It’s the same question about why the rabbis haven’t done more for agunot all the years. It’s misogyny and cowardice.”
The controversy has had another cost, causing a rift between Aranoff and Agunah Inc. co-founder Rivka Haut, who has since severed ties to the group after the bet din started.
It remains to be seen how the new bet din will affect the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Morgenstern said that women should have no problems remarrying, and several have already. He said some potential suitors who have questioned the veracity of the get, including a Satmar man and several from the ultra-Orthodox community, were satisfied after his explanation of the sources.
“I tell them if you love her, come to me and I’ll explain that this was the only way she could achieve her freedom,” the rabbi says.