Federal Authorities Accuse Rabbis of Kidnapping Scheme in Connection with Religious Divorces

Often, in my class on law and religion at St. John’s, we address difficult questions about where to draw the line on religious autonomy. How far should the state go in accommodating religious practices that conflict with state rules? Or, put in reverse, how much freedom from state control can religious organizations legitimately expect? The recent contraceptives mandate is an example of this sort of conflict.

But one of my students yesterday emailed me an article from the New York Times that discusses an an easy case–at least as the facts have been reported. Federal authorities in New Jersey this week accused two rabbis of orchestrating the kidnapping and torture of dozens of men. The rabbis did this in order to force the men to consent to their wives’ requests for divorce under Jewish law.

According to traditional Jewish law, as I understand it, women have no right unilaterally to divorce their husbands. For a divorce to be final, the husband must give his permission, or get. If the husband declines to give a get, the marriage is not dissolved, and the woman becomes an agunah, or chained woman. This means the woman cannot marry again under Jewish law. Of course, the woman could divorce and remarry civilly, but many observant Jewish women decline to take this route, as it would render them, and their future children, outcasts in their own communities.

In theory, a husband must give a get of his own free will. There are ways for Jewish law tribunals to encourage obstinate husbands to give gets, however. A tribunal might ban a husband from his synagogue until he does so, for example. And some civil jurisdictions, like New York, have passed “get laws,” which try, in various ways, to create incentives for husbands to give their wives gets.

But the two New Jersey rabbis allegedly took things much further. They allegedly kidnapped men and tortured them with tasers and electric shocks until the men agreed to give their wives gets. Apparently the rabbis charged $10,000 for a tribunal ruling allowing the use of violence against the men, and $50,000 for hiring people to do the work. The rabbis were caught in a federal sting operation:

The undercover female F.B.I. agent told Rabbi Epstein that she wanted to divorce her husband, described as a businessman in South America, who refused to grant her request. Rabbi Epstein urged her to lure the man to New Jersey, which she pledged to do.

Next Rabbi Epstein and Rabbi Wolmark convened their own rabbinical court, complete with legalisms and formalities, to issue a religious edict “authorizing the use of violence to obtain a forced get,” according to court records. The undercover agent offered testimony before the two rabbis, who were joined by other religious figures.

Told that the husband was arriving in New Jersey, eight of Rabbi Epstein’s associates met at a New Jersey warehouse to finalize the kidnapping plan, according to court documents. At that point F.B.I. agents moved in to arrest the group. The agents seized masks, ropes, scalpels and feather quills and ink bottles used for recording the get they anticipated.

I’m no expert, but I can’t imagine this sort of thing is legal under Jewish law; the whole thing seems a parody of legal process. From the point of view of civil law, however, I’m sure this is an easy case. However much discretion the state allows religious tribunals–and, in my opinion, we should allow them a great deal of discretion, as a matter of religious freedom–it doesn’t go this far. Banning someone from your synagogue is one thing. Tying someone up in a van and torturing him is quite another, even if you have a tribunal decree that allows you to do it.

You can read the Times article here.

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