In a sign of increasing strife within the Orthodox community over halachic divorce, a group of prominent rabbis recently turned out to publicly castigate a rabbi they say is “aiding and abetting” recalcitrant husbands.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school organized the Brooklyn protest after learning, he said, that Rabbi Shlomo Blumenkrantz has on several occasions arranged for a rabbinical decree that allows a man to remarry without a get.
In a letter to the leadership of the Orthodox Union’s Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Shachter said those decrees, known as a heter meah rabbanim, “do not conform to accepted halachic guidelines” and therefore Rabbi Blumenkrantz, who is part of a prominent Orthodox family in Brooklyn, was “greatly increasing the incidence of agunah cases.”
Agunot are women unable to remarry until the get, or divorce, is finalized.
The protest brought acrimony to a peaceful street in Flatbush on a recent Sunday morning, as a large group picketed Rabbi Blumenkrantz with chants and posters, and supporters of the rabbi shouted back.
“He is the source of much agony for many wives,” said Rabbi Shachter in an interview at the rally, referring to Rabbi Blumenkrantz, who was a student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the widely respected halachic authority who died in 1986. Rabbi Schachter said “I’m sure Rabbi Feinstein is now turning over in his grave.”
Rabbi Kenneth Auman, an RCA member and spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Flatbush said he came to the rally because “Unfortunately this man is involved in aiding and abetting husbands who refuse to give wives gittin, which is an affront to the Jewish community.”
Several of the rabbi’s defenders had been issued seruvim, or public documents calling for them to be ostracized until they issued a get.
One of them, Dov Charnowitz, a recent divorcee who has remarried, repeatedly engaged the crowd in heated discussion, and told The Jewish Week, “I’m here to stand up for Torah and truth.”
Many of the protestors were supporters of Susan Rosenfeld, who has been trying for two years to obtain a get from her estranged husband Ariel Hacohen. Rosenfeld said Rabbi Blumenkrantz suggested a $100,000 payment to obtain the get.
After about a half hour of the chants and protests, Rabbi Blumenkrantz emerged to speak with reporters from Jewish newspapers and, eventually, with protesters.
“There is no truth to anything that is going on,” he said.
Insisting he was helping husbands because Family Court is generally biased in favor of wives, Rabbi Blumenkrantz said husbands “have the right not to give a get if nothing is resolved. I always encourage [the men] to do the right thing.”
He said the claim of a $100,000 demand was “a filthy lie.”
After the protest, relatives of Rosenfeld and Rabbi Blumenkrantz went into a neighbor’s house to discuss the case, but the parties later said nothing was resolved.
Rabbi Blumenkrantz later provided what he said was the framework of an agreement between the parties, who have no children, concerning the disposition of property, including the engagement ring and a dog, and providing health coverage for Hacohen, whom he said has been disabled in an accident.
A source this week said Rosenfeld and her family had agreed not to publicly discuss the case further as negotiations continued.
Although the agunah issue has plagued Orthodox Jews for centuries, it has exploded onto the public stage in recent years. The New York state Legislature in 1992 was the first in the nation to pass a law requiring a court to ascertain that no religious impediment to a spouse’s remarriage exists before finalizing a divorce or annulment, and other states have followed suit.
Activists are increasingly taking public the campaign against recalcitrant husbands (and in fewer cases, wives who refuse to accept gittin).
“We’ve had nearly 60 demonstration in the past four years,” said Josh Ross of The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which organized the Brooklyn rally. Rabbi Schachter serves as a halachic adviser to the group, which has held protests as far away as Montreal, Baltimore and Florida.
“It’s not a matter of a person doing wrong per se, but we’re trying to [remind them] of their halachic obligation to go to a bet din that is a fair bet din,” said Ross.
Ross said most rabbinic sources view the heter meah rabbanim as commonly misused, and that it should only be applied “with extreme delicacy by a competent bet din.” The document was intended to resolve a situation where a woman refuses to accept a get that is readily available or when she is not mentally competent to accept the agreement.
One case of a heter meah rabbanim exploded into a public spectacle when a Borough Park woman, Chaye Sieger, sued several rabbis for defamation for granting her husband, Chaim, the document in 1998 on grounds that she was an unfit wife. She also alleged the rabbis were bribed. An appellate court threw out the case in 2003, ruling that it had no jurisdiction in a religious matter and that Sieger’s charges were unsubstantiated.
Ross said Rabbi Blumenkrantz was “directly linked to number of cases where a man refused to give his wife a get and in a number of cases where a man is either pursuing or has obtained a heter meah rabbanim.”
Even when such a heter is issued, said Ross, it is not a replacement for a get, which must still be written and be available for the wife to accept at any time.