Blaming the messenger

The article, which ran on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times, was disturbing – but let’s not be too quick to jump on the Times. What I found deeply disturbing about the story (“Unwilling to Allow His Wife a Divorce, He Marries Another”) is not that I think the Times got the story wrong, but rather that I fear they got it right.

No halakhic Jew can be happy to read yet another news story about yet another agunah – a woman chained to a dead marriage by her husband’s persistent refusal to give her a get (Jewish divorce). In the case that is the subject of the Times story, civil divorce proceedings concluded almost seven years ago, but the husband continues to withhold a get unless his wife complies with his demands. The wife still lives (together with the couple’s son) in Monsey, New York, where the couple lived during their marriage. The husband moved to California several years ago, and currently lives in Las Vegas, from which the Times story was written. Jennifer Medina, the reporter under whose by-line the story appeared, is a veteran Times reporter with no apparent experience reporting on religion. She is currently based in Los Angeles and covers Southern California and Nevada for the Times.

What triggered the story was the husband’s “remarriage,” which took place in Las Vegas last Thursday. The wedding — a “modest affair,” according to the Times — drew a crowd of California-based protesters apparently organized by the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which uses nonviolent community pressure to force recalcitrant husbands to grant religious divorces to their wives. ORA has highlighted this particular case before, and Rabbi Jeremy Stern, its executive director, was quoted in the Times story, though for some reason the organization is not identified by name.

Almost everyone to whom I mentioned the story after reading it immediately assumed that it was an example of anti-Orthodox bias on the part of the Times. The article itself, however, didn’t read that way. It was sympathetic to the agunah, of course, but it seemed to emphasize that the husband’s actions, though not without halakhic precedent, were well out of mainstream Orthodox Judaism. Indeed, everyone quoted in the article was an Orthodox Jew sympathetic to the agunah.

ORA often uses publicity as one of the tools to pressure recalcitrant husbands, so it’s certainly possible that the organization alerted the Times to the impending wedding and accompanying protest. It’s also possible that one or more of the California protesters had previously had prior dealings with this particular reporter and approached her directly (with or without ORA’s knowledge) to suggest that she cover the story. Either way, this does not appear to be a case in which the Times was seeking a story that would make Orthodox Jews look bad. Rather, those seeking to assist the wife to obtain a get appear to have sought the media attention, expecting it to help her cause.

Why then did the Times give the story such prominent placement? I suspect that the bigamy angle caught the editors’ attention, which is why the headline focused on it. If this had been the more common case where the get-refusing husband ignored halakhic requirements completely and just remarried civilly, it probably would have drawn less attention. I’m not sure that it matters much to the agunah whether the husband is remarrying only under civil law without any pretense of Jewish legitimacy, is cohabiting without even a civil marriage or is misusing the device of heter meah rabbanim (permission of a hundred rabbis) to marry. The distress of the agunah would be the same in any of those cases, but it’s easy to see why, to a Times editor unfamiliar with the halakhic system, the use of the heter meah rabbanim sounds a lot worse – particularly since limiting people to one spouse at a time is about the only limitation on marriage that the Times seems to accept.

Front-page placement aside, the Times’ coverage seems reasonably fair. The husband in this case, it says, “apparently relied on a legal loophole, which says that if a man can get the special permission of 100 rabbis to take a second wife he is permitted to do so.” Though the article doesn’t mention it, that procedure is generally used today only when the wife refuses to accept a get or is incapable of doing so. Before being allowed to remarry, moreover, the husband is required to deliver a get to the beit din, which in turn will deliver it to the wife, where possible. To use this device to facilitate the husband’s desire to keep his wife an agunah is a gross abuse of the procedure.

Whether the husband in this case actually obtained a heter meah rabbanim is unclear from the article. On line sources suggest that a heter meah rabbanim was obtained by a particular Monsey beit din — one which the Times article calls “controversial” and which, it says, “has been widely denounced by rabbinical authorities in the United States and Israel.” According to on-line sources, the husband in this case did deliver a get to that beit din, but on condition that it be delivered to the wife only if she accepts that beit din’s jurisdiction of monetary and custody issues, all of which were resolved by the civil court several years ago.

Yes, it’s true that I don’t know all the facts involved in this particular divorce situation. Having handled a fair number of divorce cases during the years I practiced law, I am well aware that the facts are seldom as one-sided as either spouse’s partisans claim. Anyone who is interested in delving into the details of this case can easily find lots of material on-line from supporters of both parties, as well as discussion of the merits or lack thereof of the particular beit din that the husband has insisted is the only one he would recognize.

I have read only a small part of what’s available on line about this case, so any opinion I may have formed regarding the underlying issues would necessarily be tentative. Moreover, in contentious divorce situations – and I think that we can all agree that this one falls into that category – even those with comprehensive knowledge of the facts frequently have trouble figuring out what to believe. That’s the primary reason that “no-fault” divorce has become the norm in this country – to relieve the civil courts of the fruitless task of seeking to assign marital fault.

The merits of the underlying dispute, however, should be irrelevant to the issue of get refusal. Monetary or custody-related issues can be resolved by a beit din acceptable to both parties or, if necessary, by the civil courts. Regardless of how strongly he believes that one or more of those issues were wrongly determined, there is never a justification for a husband refusing his wife a get. To use the Torah as a weapon to inflict pain is a chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s name) in its purest form.

No, it’s not pleasant to see such a news story on the front page of the New York Times, and I certainly understand why many halahkic Jews are instinctively suspicious of both the accuracy of such stories and the motivation behind them. In this case, however, the initiative for publicizing the case appears to have come from those trying to help free the agunah, and the news story appears to be reasonably fair. If anything, the Times story may be more favorable to the halakhic community than it deserves. It depicts the husband in this case and the beit din. on which he is relying as isolated bad actors seeking to take advantage of the system and facing overwhelming opposition from the mainstream Orthodox. community. I only wish it were so. While I am confident that most halakhic Jews would be dismayed by the husband’s actions in this case, only a tiny minority are actively fighting get refusal.

It’s always tempting to shoot the messenger, especially when there’s no love lost between you and the messenger for unrelated reasons. I understand why many halakhic Jews are inclined to assume the worst when it comes to the Times, but with respect to this particular story, I don’t think we have a legitimate grievance. The chilul Hashem here was not the fault of the New York Times, nor of those who may have enlisted its aid in the hope that it might help free an agunah. Rather, the blame rests on those who allow the problem to continue – the husbands who put their own greed or malice ahead of the Torah’s honor, the rabbis who enable them and the religious and community leaders who have not done everything in their power to bring get refusal to a halt. If those charged with the responsibility of leadership fail to act, then they have no cause for complaint if “relief and deliverance will come … from another quarter”(Esther 4:14) – even if that quarter is the New York Times.

About the Author
Douglas Aronin is a retired attorney living in Forest Hills, Queens, who is continuing his lifelong involvement in the Jewish community. His writings have appeared in a wide range of print and online forums.