October 27, 2020 |

No Excuses for a Recalcitrant Husband

I met Tamar on Sunday. She is a 27 year old graduate of Yeshiva University’s Stern College and the mother of a three year old child. Although, she was surrounded by family, friends, and literally hundreds of supporters she had tears in her eyes.

She said to me, “I never thought it could happen to me. If it could happen to me, then it could happen to anyone.”

Tamar is very brave. She is speaking out publicly and defiantly in the face of the terrible ordeal she is going through. She is currently an Agunah or a “chained woman.” By this we do not mean physically chained, but psychologically, emotionally, and legally chained. Despite the fact that she and Aharon Friedman, were civilly divorced more than eight months ago, he refuses to give her a Get (a Jewish divorce) and therefore she is not permitted to remarry.

I have been a rabbi long enough to know that when a contested divorce is taking place there are at a minimum two different sides to the story. But when either party withholds a Get and uses that as leverage, then until that matter is settled there is only one side. Period. Otherwise we are effectively giving the spouse veto power over any court’s decision. Just as we would not tolerate physical coercion, we cannot tolerate emotional coercion.

I feel strongly that once there is a civil divorce there is absolutely no excuse to withhold a Get. (I would actually go farther and say that once there is no chance for reconciliation a Get should be given immediately.) The Get cannot be used as a leverage to gain more money or better terms of a divorce settlement. To do such a thing is a desecration of God’s name as it is chaining the woman in an emotional fashion.

Make no mistake about it, being emotionally and psychologically chained can be just as enslaving as being physically chained.

We see this very notion in this week’s portion. The verse (Exodus 1:13) says that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews be-farekh. The word farekh is usually translated as hard labor, as in work hamefarechet et haguf, that destroys the body.

But Maimonides translates the word differently as “peh rach, a soft tongue.” In other words, Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites with deception and manipulation and not hard labor. The slavery of Egypt was an emotional and psychological slavery more than a physical one.

And that is what Tamar is going through. She is being emotionally and psychologically enslaved by her former husband and is unable to free herself and move on with her life.

By Jewish law the only way Tamar can remarry, short of the death of her husband, is if Aharon gives her a Get on his own free will. Yet, Maimonides rules that we should physically encourage Aharon to give the Get until he says he is doing so on his own volition.

Today, of course, we cannot and should not use physical attacks as a method of coercion. It is illegal and inappropriate, but nonetheless we must not remain passive.

So when we see such an enslaved woman in our own community what should our reaction be?

I want to present two appropriate reactions on the basis of this week’s portion.

First and foremost, when we hear of an Agunah situation in our own community, we as a community and as individuals must get involved.

At the time of this past Sunday’s rally three rabbis representing the local Vaad of Orthodox Rabbis issued a statement to the effect that they are not taking a stand on this matter. But they did take a stand. By issuing such a statement on the eve of the rally, they participated in a smokescreen in support of the husband. None of those rabbis attended the rally for Tamar. Their passivity was in fact a stand in favor of the status quo.

We must take the opposite approach. We must get involved. Don’t say “we cannot take a stand on this matter.” Their approach is an unacceptable approach that is playing jurisdictional politics with the life of a young woman. It is only by getting involved in these cases that we will bring about the redemption.

And what is at stake here is not just Tamar’s well being but the redemption of our people.

It is the awesome, spiritual power of marriage that led to the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt.
The verse says, (2:1), Vayelekh ish mi-beit levi vayikach et bat levi, and a man went from the house of Levi and married a daughter of Levi. It is from this union, between Amram and Yocheved, that the great Moshe Rabbeinu, the redeemer of our people, was born.

But the verse itself is difficult. The commentators notice that the word “vayelekh, and he went,” is unusual in this context.

Explains the great Nachmanides: The word vayelekh speaks to the greatness of their act. Pharaoh had just issued a decree that every Jewish boy that was born was to be killed. In this context, Moshe’s parents decided to get married and have children even thought their actions entailed a great risk.

Nachmanides says that the very act of vayelekh was “an act of greatness because it was an act of defiance to pharaoh’s decree, she lo chashah legezeirat pharaoh.” And Nachmanides writes, “al yedei zeh yigalu yisrael, through this courageous act of defiance the Israelites were ultimately redeemed from Egypt.”

So it is through a courageous commitment to marriage and creating children that the Jewish people achieved redemption in Egypt.

But this positive idea comes with a negative contrast as well. Thus, the flip side of this is when people take actions that destroy the core of marriage; by chaining a woman and preventing her from remarrying, a recalcitrant husband is destroying our ability for redemption as a community.

It is not just the woman who is denied freedom and redemption, whenever any woman in a community is chained and thereby unredeemed; we are all being chained by virtue of the fact that we are all denied redemption.
In response we must get involved.

More specifically, I spoke directly with Rav Herschel Schachter this week. Rav Schachter is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva University and a tremendous scholar. He is viewed as a posek (legal authority) for the Rabbinical Council of America and the OU. Rav Schachter is also intimately involved in this case and knows all of its details very well.

Rav Schachter encouraged us to publicly raise a voice against Aharon. He also encouraged me to let Aharon’s employers know about his unethical behavior. Aharon is a lawyer for a very powerful Republican Congressman (David Camp from Michigan). Rav Schachter urged me to pursue this matter with Aharon’s colleagues on Capitol Hill.
This is the first point I wanted to make: We must get involved in trying to free Tamar.

But I have a second point as well. In this case simply getting involved is not even enough. It is necessary but insufficient action.

This can also be seen from the verses in this week’s portion.

It states (2:11): Vayigdal Moshe vayetzei el achav vayar besivlotam, and Moshe grew up and he went out to his brothers and he saw their afflictions.

This verse refers to the fact that Moshe was raised in the palace of Pharaoh but he then went out and noticed that his own brethren were being enslaved. Famously, Moshe intervenes twice on behalf of his brothers.

First he notices that an Egyptian is beating an Israelite. When Moshe sees this, “he strikes the Egyptian” and kills him. Moshe then sees two Israelites fighting with each other. Here too, he intervenes. But this time his actions are exposed to Pharaoh and he needs to flee into exile.

So Moshe has acted courageously twice. But he still is not yet picked by Hashem to be the redeemer of His people. Moshe is still not worthy to receive a revelation from God.

His actions were noble, but they weren’t enough to cause redemption. Moshe runs into the wilderness of Midian. According to Ramban (2:24) he was in the wilderness for at least 60 years!

For 60 years he wasn’t worthy to redeem the people despite the fact that he had gotten involved. Something more was required. The Torah doesn’t mention the intervening 60 years of his life, because he didn’t do anything of consequence in between.

It is only after the following incident that Moshe becomes worthy of standing in God’s presence, receiving revelation, and effectuating redemption. It was only after the following incident that he saw the burning bush and merited to be Moshe Rabbeinu.

The first thing the Torah mentions after 60 years of Moshe’s life is that he helped seven Midianite women get their water from a well.

Says the Torah: (2:16-17): “As these [seven daughters] were beginning to fill their troughs and water their father’s sheep, other shepherds came and tried to chase them away. Moshe got up and came to their aid and then watered their sheep. Vayakam Moshe vayoshian vayashk et tzonam.”

So what was so special about this incident?

Again Ramban (2:16) teaches us how to interpret this passage. He explains that every day the shepherds were bullying and abusing these seven daughters and stealing their water. Moshe’s greatness was that not only did he return the water to its rightful owners, but he also helped them draw new water. In the words of Ramban, “ve-gam daloh dalah lahem, he also drew new water for them.”

Not only did he fix the injustice of the situation but he did an act of outright kindness to sustain them going forward.
Moshe’s greatness was that he didn’t settle for fixing a specific injustice, he moved the community so that there would be no more injustices.

We see a similar idea as it relates to the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who are spoken about in this week’s portion. Pharaoh had commanded these women to kill the Jewish babies. So the Torah states that these Jewish women saved the babies, “vatichayennah et hayeladim, and they allowed the children to live.”

But Rashi commenting on the words “vatichayennah et hayeladim” says “mesapkot lahem mazon,” they gave them food. In other words, not only did these midwives (who our tradition understands to be the mother and sister of Moshe) save the lives of these babies, but they also went an extra step of providing them with food and water.

Rav Schachter explained their actions on the basis of an idea of Maimonides in his Shemonah Perakim. Rambam states that when there is a character trait of society that is bad in the extreme, we need to change our society by moving to the other extreme.

When there is an environment of injustice in the community, it is not enough just to correct the injustice. We must totally change the culture that allows such an incident to happen.

It wasn’t enough for Moshe to simply return the water to the seven Midianite daughters; he also needed to draw new water for them. It wasn’t enough for the Shifrah and Puah to save the lives of the newborn babies; they also had to provide food and sustenance for all the babies they saved. And for us too, it is not enough just to correct the injustice for Tamar; we must change the environment of our entire community.

This case has shown me that the RCA’s recommended prenuptial agreement is sadly inadequate to protect women from becoming Agunot. First, I know of a case right now where a woman who signed the RCA prenuptial agreement is unable to get a Get because the husband is claiming the signature was forged. Second, the prenuptial agreement only threatens the husband with a financial penalty. But this is insufficient protection because a vindictive husband can elude such a threat. We need to do better. The status quo is unacceptable.

When there is a tragic event like an agunah in our community it is not just the woman who is chained and enslaved. We are all chained and enslaved and held back from redemption. And such a tragedy cannot just be corrected with a mere correction of this specific woman; we need to reach out beyond her case and seek to aid the plight of all agunot around the country; we must use this as a springboard to help all struggling women in similar situations—not to just free them from their plight but to literally draw water for them going forward and to provide them with mazon and mayim.
And only when we do that will we also be worthy of seeing the burning bush and standing in the presence of Hashem.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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Manny Jacobowitz

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