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Jewish Journal

Agunah crowd shouldn’t target families

by David Benkof

December 16, 2013 | 10:47 am

The preeminent sacred cow to many Jews is compassion for agunot (“chained” women whose husbands withhold a Jewish bill of divorce, or “Get”). But enough already: the Internet crowd attacking Avrohom Meir Weiss in his divorce from Gital Dodelson is becoming as heartless and halachically problematic as Weiss himself.

Dodelson fired the first public salvo with a Nov. 4 article in The New York Post stating that Weiss has refused her a Get for more than three years. She provided unquestionably disturbing details, such as that Weiss demanded $350,000 to back down and said “I can’t give you a Get – how else would I control you?”

I sympathize with Dodelson – and here I completely accept her version of the truth. Every agunah situation is a tragedy, more so when children are involved (the couple has a son). Dodelson’s supporters have organized a Web site, setgitalfree.com, and an associated Facebook page.

But their methods reflect poorly on the entire urgent movement to help agunot. Instead of the traditional focus on the recalcitrant husband, this bandwagon mostly targets Weiss’s relatives.

First, Internet warriors boycotted Orthodox publisher ArtScroll until it fired Weiss’s father and uncle. A Facebook commenter claimed victory, saying ArtScroll “heard us loud and clear, and they did exactly what we asked.”

Next, agunah activists turned against Yeshiva of Staten Island (YSI), where Weiss learns and which is run by his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein. They demanded that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) remove YSI’s accreditation and reject rabbis ordained by the yeshiva’s sister school. They also convinced at least one synagogue to cancel an appearance by Rabbi Feinstein.

“Set Gital Free” even bullied Weiss’s elderly grandmother by publishing her telephone number and urging people to “politely and respectfully” inundate her with calls until a Get is granted.

The pro-Dodelson site calls these family members “enablers” who “support” Weiss’s actions. But the relatives are pretty much chained themselves – caught in the no-win position of wishing to succor a humiliated loved one while wanting an ugly divorce resolved. Besides, who knows what they’ve said to Weiss privately?

Those who punish relatives of Get refusers remind me of opponents of Israel’s policies on the West Bank who randomly say “I know – let’s boycott Israeli universities and scholars!” Only this improvisation is worse.

No act, however spiteful, justifies a posse deciding to assault the livelihoods and reputations of relatives and colleagues. It doesn’t seem very Jewish to me: Did a horde attack Jacob because of Esau’s misdeeds, or Jonathan because of Saul’s?

So I contacted RCA Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, the rabbi “Set Gital Free” recommended to explain the Torah basis for their strategy. To my surprise, he said absolutely nothing in halachic literature endorses communal pressure on family members of Get refusers, and he never prescribed that approach. Thus, the activists are disregarding the counsel of the man they claim is their rabbi. Orthodox Jews just don’t do that.

I later consulted Rabbi Jeremy Stern from the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), who also could think of no text in a Jewish source describing anything like the “Free Gital” tactics – and he would know. ORA’s extensive Web site promotes many ways to pressure husbands but none to pressure relatives.

Rabbi Stern referenced the impressive “Kol Koreh” (proclamation) signed by ten leading American rabbis, including five from the renowned Council of Torah Sages and ORA’s halachic expert, Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

The Kol Koreh imposes more than a dozen harsh penalties on Weiss, but only one regarding his family: that ArtScroll must terminate the father and uncle. That directive clearly relates to the laws of a Jewish court (beit din), not those of agunot, since any man who flouts a beit din’s rulings risks retribution. But the rabbis didn’t call for a boycott. (The Facebook site’s supposed triumph over ArtScroll is absurd – as if it had more sway than our generation’s most respected rabbis.) The proclamation also says nothing about canceled speeches, disaccreditations, rejected ordinations, or harassment of old ladies.

Rabbi Schachter and several other Kol Koreh rabbis have been “consulted” throughout the process, Rabbi Stern said. But he would not answer specific questions whether Rabbi Schachter (who declined comment) approved the extreme actions against the relatives. Surely the Gedolei Hador (today’s leading rabbis) would have demanded further steps against the family in the Kol Koreh if they felt them licit and necessary.

It’s alarming that poor Gital’s agunah case would arouse the most disproportionate response in Jewish history undoubtedly due to a 2,500-word essay in a non-Jewish newspaper. Now, before you get out the pitchforks: I don’t defend Weiss one bit. I just think we should heed the measured voice of the Kol Koreh instead of the “Set Gital Free” overreaction.


David Benkof lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

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