In its first year, the New York-based International Beit Din (IBD), headed by Rabbi Simcha Krauss, a widely respected rabbi here and in Israel, has resolved nearly 20 cases of agunot, chained women, freeing them from their loveless marriages.
In doing so, it has incurred the condemnation of some leading rabbinic authorities, most notably, and recently, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, a leading rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, who last month penned a public letter of protest dismissing the court’s collective rulings and pronouncing Rabbi Krauss unfit to make complex decisions regarding agunot.
(The issue has vexed rabbinic leaders for generations because according to halacha, or Jewish law, the recalcitrant husband must free his wife willingly.)
“From start to finish, this is a mistake,” Rabbi Schachter wrote in a three-paragraph letter, posted on an anonymously sponsored Torah website. The letter, written in Hebrew, says that only “great scholars of the generation” should be dealing with these sensitive matters. Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, head of the Beit Din of America, (the largest rabbinical court), and three other prominent rabbis also signed the letter.
As a result, various elements of the centrist and Modern Orthodox community are caught up in this controversy, which threatens to further divide the movement. And as the IBD struggles for acceptance, the women who have already been freed may face a new kind of limbo, worried if a subsequent marriage will be accepted in the community.
The new beit din has employed a traditional halachic approach, though sometimes using modern technology as well. In five recent cases, for example, the court reviewed videos of the couples' wedding and found one or both witnesses invalid, thereby annulling the marriage.
The ongoing controversy is engulfing Centrist Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University, with which most of the rabbis involved are affiliated. And it mirrors a fight taking place in Israel today that pits a new, more liberal-minded conversion court — including Lincoln Square Synagogue founding rabbi and YU-ordained Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi David Stav — that is challenging the power of Israel’s charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate on these issues.
Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of YU’s rabbinic school, offered a statement on Tuesday, noting that the institution has “played a leading role in the effort to resolve the plight of agunot in a manner that is fully compliant with halacha,” citing its involvement in creating ORA (Organization for the Resolution of Agunot).
He noted that “our Roshei Yeshiva represent a variety of viewpoints, many of them, as well as most poskim [authorities] across the Orthodox spectrum, have expressed serious concern over the status of the beit din while noting the good will and motivation of its proponents.” The statement expressed empathy for agunot, but said efforts to release women from a marriage “must be balanced with the severity, halachic status and social consequences of such matters.”
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a pulpit rabbi in Englewood, N.J., and former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest body of Orthodox rabbis, spoke of those social consequences.
“The court is not doing a favor for these women if it issues a solution that won’t be acceptable to a large population of Orthodox rabbis,” he said. He compared the court’s actions to efforts made in the 1990s by the late Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a major figure in Modern Orthodoxy and president of Bar-Ilan University, who convened a beit din that issued divorces on the basis of kiddushei ta’ot, a Talmudic concept for annulment. His rulings were never widely accepted in the Orthodox world and many rabbis refused to officiate at the subsequent weddings of women who had been freed by the rabbi’s bet din.
“This isn’t a democracy, it’s a halachic process,” said Rabbi Goldin. “The power to make decisions has always been in the hands of the few who spend their lives steeped in its wells.”
The Issue’s True Face
For women like “Sarah Jacobs,” who asked that we not use her real name because she doesn’t want her husband to see her quoted in a newspaper, a mother of three in her mid-30s, the outcome of the IBD debate will determine her future. Jacobs grew up in a “yeshivish” Orthodox enclave in Brooklyn. At age 20, she met and married a 21-year-old Talmud scholar studying at a nearby yeshiva. They were engaged after seven weeks, 10 dates. Twelve years, three children and one diagnosis of mental illness later, she left him.
“I stayed until I couldn’t stand it any more,” Jacobs said in an interview with The Jewish Week. She didn’t want to specify her husband’s diagnosis but described it as severe and incurable. Though “things were not right from day one,” divorce, still carrying an indelible taboo in the Orthodox world, was her last resort. Over the course of the marriage, she and her children incurred repeated emotional and physical abuse, she said. He lobbed insults and threats at them, and sometimes even heavy pieces of furniture. Those he would shove onto Jacobs or her children after having pushed them to the ground, she said.
When Jacobs finally found the strength to leave in November 2011, her journey towards attaining a get, or religious divorce, began. Over five years, she visited five different religious courts in three states and two countries. During this time, she was subjected to financial extortion, disrespect, and the perpetual, fruitless waiting, she said.
Determined to remain in the Orthodox community, she learned of Rabbi Krauss’ beit din through an article in The Jewish Week. She met with him in March 2015. After nine hours of testimony and a six-page document explaining their decision, the three-member IBD ruled to annul her marriage on the Talmudic principle that the woman never would have married her husband if she had known he would act in an abusive fashion during the marriage.
“He dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t,’” she said of Rabbi Krauss. “He was so genuine, so compassionate. He is my only lifeline.”
Rabbi Krauss, a longtime pulpit rabbi in Queens and the former president of Religious Zionistists of America, made aliyah several years ago but returned to New York for two years to launch the IBD. He declined to speak on the record, for the most part, but several prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side, Rabbi Yosef Adler of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, N.J., and Rabbi David Bigman, a prominent Rosh Yeshiva in Israel, have voiced support for his efforts. A petition is now circulating in support of Rabbi Krauss and has been signed by 100 rabbis, though the rabbi chose not to release the names at this time.
“I have tremendous respect for Rabbi Krauss as a first-rate Talmud chacham [scholar] and somebody upon whom I can rely to make good decisions grounded in authentic and reliable halachic sources,” Rabbi Lookstein told The Jewish Week. In the case of an agunah, “every leniency that the halacha allows should be used,” he said. He also said that Rabbi Krauss’ approach is “entirely different” than the approach used by Rabbi Rackman, though he declined to elaborate.
Rabbi Adler similarly vouched for Rabbi Krauss’ credibility, pronouncing him a “first-class scholar.”
Many others have voiced support for Rabbi Krauss, but only off the record. One prominent New York rabbi who supports Rabbi Krauss but requested to remain anonymous described the situation as a social action problem. “It’s a game of numbers — everyone is waiting for the next guy to jump,” he said. “It’s a zero-sum game — everyone’s in, or nobody’s in.”
A prominent centrist Orthodox rabbi, also speaking off the record, said he was “surprised” Rabbi Schachter didn’t offer a fuller exposition of his reasoning for condemning the IBD in the heated aftermath of his letter. “He’s used to just invoking his own rabbinic authority, and of that being enough, but that doesn’t work anymore,” he said. More than anything else, this controversy foretells the emergence of a new movement, he said. “We’re heading for a split [within Orthodoxy] — at this point, it seems inevitable.”
Rabbi Schachter has not responded to requests for an interview.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a Modern Orthodox yeshiva that provides a more liberal alternative to Yeshiva University, wrote a letter to Rabbi Schachter, strongly criticizing his personal attack against Rabbi Krauss, The Jewish Week has learned. It defended Rabbi Schachter’s right to argue on the merits of his position, but said “no human being, let alone no rabbi, should be dismissed in such humiliating terms.” Rabbi Weiss called on Rabbi Schachter to publicly apologize in the spirit of the upcoming High Holy Days.
Several other rabbis who were interviewed referred, off the record, to Rabbi Schachter’s actions as “bullying.” But Rabbi Heshie Billet, senior rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere, offered a more pragmatic reason for not endorsing the IBD. He described Rabbi Krauss’ actions as “noble,” but said local rabbis can’t afford to undermine their loyalties to the Beit Din of America, the most prominent, mainstream religious court, which is headed by Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, a co-signer of the Rabbi Schachter letter.
“Since I live in New York, that’s my beit din, and I need their stamp of approval,” Rabbi Billet said. “It’s that simple.”
YU’s Internal Battle
The battle for the “soul of Orthodoxy” as one prominent rabbi termed it, is evident within Yeshiva University’s ranks. Two YU faculty members were pressured to disassociate from Rabbi Krauss’ beit din, despite strong personal convictions to support his mission.
Rabbi Yosef Blau, the spiritual adviser at Yeshiva University for nearly five decades and well-known for his advocacy confronting sexual abuse within the Orthodox community, has been a judge on the IBD since its founding. Every decision made by the court included Rabbi Blau, a well-known voice of authority within the community. Rabbi Yehuda Warburg, a dayan, or, religious judge, for the past 15 years, is the third judge on the court.
A few weeks ago Rabbi Blau was pressured to leave the court by colleagues within YU who disagreed with the court’s actions. Though Rabbi Blau declined to comment directly, a letter he submitted to Rabbi Krauss with his resignation cited a desire to “prevent controversy within YU” as his reason for departure.
According to a letter by Rabbi Krauss defending the IBD against Rabbi Schachter’s attack, Rabbi Blau agreed to resign in exchange for an agreement that Rabbi Schachter would not publicly attack the court. But according to the letter, Rabbi Schachter backtracked on the agreement within a few weeks and cited Rabbi’s Blau’s departure as evidence of the court’s questionable status.
Rabbi Moshe Kahn, a faculty member at YU’s Stern College for Women who teaches in the Graduate Program for Advanced Talmudic Study for women agreed to serve as an IBD judge after Rabbi Blau stepped down. But within a week he was pressured to resign. Though Rabbi Kahn declined to comment, a source within the university said pressure was put on the rabbi to step down for fear that his affiliation with the court would negatively impact funding for the GPATS program. The source also said that there were concerns that the roshei yeshiva at YU, who opposed the IBD, would dissuade their students from dating women in the GPATS program.
To Marry Or Not To Marry
How will this halachic battle play out for women who, after being freed by the IBD, seek to remarry?
Though Jacobs has slowly started to date again, she said she worries about her future status.
“I finally feel like I can breathe. After 15 years of being suffocated, I feel like myself. I feel like a person, not just a victim,” she said. Still, some men have stopped going out with her on learning that she was freed by the IBD.
“People have no problem breaking every other halacha, but when it comes to a get, they need the most stringent of stringencies,” she said. “It starts with the rabbis, this corrupt double-standard, and then everyone else just accepts blindly. In a minute, they can ruin everything I’ve worked towards over the past five years.”
In the last two weeks, since this controversy erupted, two women seeking the aid of the IBD have backed away. Still, Rabbi Krauss is committed to continue. After Rabbi Kahn’s resignation last week, another rabbi has been selected as a judge, though Rabbi Krauss declined to share the name until the appointment is official.
Rabbi Krauss, who is in his late 70s, walks with difficulty. Climbing a short flight of stairs, he paused on every step, making light conversation to distract from his belabored movements.
“You can hurt me, you can insult me,” he said of his critics. “But at the end of the day, this is not about me. This is a war. We’re fighting for these women. And if we win, the whole community wins. And if we lose,” he paused, a question hanging in his voice, “more is lost than we can ever know.”