Several major national Orthodox rabbinical groups this week repudiated the work of a New York City rabbinical court that has gained popularity with women by “freeing” chained wives, or agunot, stuck in bad marriages.
Strongly worded statements were issued separately on Tuesday by both the rigidly Orthodox Agudath Israel of America and the increasingly right-wing National Council of Young Israel, asserting that the rabbinical court was operating outside the bounds of halacha, or Jewish law.
The court, Bet Din L’Ba’Ayot Agunot, was established a year and a half ago by Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the chancellor emeritus of Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, a Queens accountant. Since then it has granted approximately 100 annulments and divorces.
Supporters of the court say its purpose is to alleviate the hardship of agunot by granting religious divorces to Orthodox women otherwise unable to obtain them through mainstream Orthodox rabbinic courts. “These situations cry out for justice,” said Rabbi Rackman, 88, a pillar of Modern Orthodoxy. “We are morally obligated to relieve them of the threats and fear.”
The new court and its work was a focus of last week’s Second International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, which may have prompted the attacks this week.
At a plenary on the topic, the majority of participants enthusiastically applauded the efforts of the court, though two panelists, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel and Rabbi Saul Berman of Edah, a Modern Orthodox group, called for further discussion on the issue. They urged the court to use the highest standards of halacha so that its work could be widely accepted.
“We need to support the Morgenstern bet din with sechel [wisdom] and with resources to make sure its fact-finding is absolutely clear,” Rabbi Berman said.
The court has sparked controversy because it empowers its rabbinical judges to grant a divorce where traditionally it is only the husband who can do so. In cases of a husband’s physical abuse, cruelty or drug addiction, the court often will declare those problems to be pre-existing conditions hidden by the husband at the time of marriage. Therefore, the court rules that the husband perpetrated a fraud, which forms the basis for voiding or annulling the marriage.
But Young Israel and Agudah declared that the procedures being used by Rabbi Rackman’s court go against traditional Jewish law. They warn it will create a community of mamzerim, or religious bastards —- referring to the children resulting from subsequent marriages of women granted a religious divorce through the court. The contention is that the ensuing marriage would be religiously invalid.
A week earlier, the Beth Din of America, a rabbinical court affiliated with the centrist Rabbinical Council of America, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU) issued a milder rebuke of Rabbi Rackman’s court, calling its methods “incorrect.”
It raised questions about the Rackman court’s legal procedures and sources and called for the rabbis to publicly explain their legal arguments.
The Beth Din of America argues that abandonment, cruelty or addiction that is discovered after the wedding “cannot possibly be grounds to annul the marriage.”
Young Israel’s Council of Rabbis said it “forcefully rejects the efforts by a few rabbis to solve the Agunah problem outside the guidelines of normative halacha (Jewish law).
“While our hearts go out to these women in distress, Torah dictates cannot be discarded because of our desire to help the aggrieved,” the statement said.
The group said it disapproves of the methodology of the Rackman court.
It said only the major Jewish legal decisors of the generation can handle these issues.
“How heartless and foolish it is to lull unfortunate women into the illusory impression that they are free to remarry when virtually every major rabbinic body in the world has rejected the approach used.”
Agudah issued a “sharp denunciation,” charging the Rackman court with being “unworthy of the name Bet Din.” The document was signed by Rabbi Dovid Kviat of Congregation Agudath Israel of Borough Park-18th Avenue.
Agudah implored Jewish women to shun Rabbi Rackman’s court and choose “proper religious courts which will render true decisions reached through our holy Torah.”
“I’m worrying about children being born who may grow up to be a mamzer,” said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive director of Young Israel. “This bet din is a farce and is dangerous to the Jewish community.”
Agudah spokesman Avi Shafran said that women who go before the Rackman court commit “a terrible sin” if they remarry. “The children will be tainted with a status that will prevent them from marrying freely in the Jewish community,” he said.
But Rabbi Morgenstern dismissed such views as “absurd.”
“They are definitely not bastards,” he said of subsequent children of the freed wives. “More important, every one of our 30 rabbis will marry any one of these women, and their children can also come to us.” He was referring to the rabbinic group backing the new court called the Supreme Rabbinic Court of America.
Rabbi Morgenstern also said his legal procedures are supported by several rabbinic authorities and cited as precedent some radical rulings by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a major Torah sage.
Rabbi Morgenstern, who has been unwelcome at several neighborhood synagogues in Queens since his involvement in this issue, said his opponents’ arguments are irrelevant and do not represent women.
“Nine out of 10 women who come to us are already having sex with other men before they come to us,” he said, rejecting the charge that he is causing women to sin. The women in these cases have long been separated from their husbands and view their marriages as dead.
Also backing the Rackman court was Susan Aranoff, a founder of Agunah Inc., a women’s advocacy group.
“The new bet din has released women from husbands who have abandoned and abused them, men who are guilty of promiscuity, sexual perversion, and criminal acts,” Aranoff said. “We stand by the interpretation of halacha that decrees that Jewish women should not be chained in marriages to such fiends.”
One Queens women and Young Israel member whose marriage was annulled by the new court told The Jewish Week that the new rabbinic criticism means “zero” to her and friends who are agunot.
She said the mainstream Orthodox courts failed her. “They were willing to compromise the future of a woman’s security and her children’s security and to give in to extortion measures of a husband who uses religion as weapon against a women rights,” said the woman, who called herself Dina.