By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Divorce wars can be very bitter battles.
Unfortunately, divorces between observant Jews are often no exception. Indeed, often they can even be more difficult than their secular counterparts by virtue of the fact that the observant Jewish man has a weapon at his disposal that no other man has.
He can withhold the means for his wife to ever marry again. He can refuse to give her a get. If the husband is vindictive, he can transform his wife into what is called an “agunah”–a chained woman. She is consigned to the fate of loneliness–a solitary isolated existence without opportunity for love and future marriage.
It is the ultimate cruelty.
Why this gross imbalance exists is beyond the purview of this article. The fact is that it does exist.
The fate of the agunah is something that the world bemoans, yet does little about. Very few have dared to try to help these women. If the allegations are in fact true, Rabbi Wolmark is one of those who have tried.
From a legal perspective, consider the following: There are, at times, conflicts between the imperatives of three legal systems: federal law, state law, and local law do not always conform to each other. For observant Jews, there is also a fourth imperative–the ideals of Jewish law.
And the ideals of Jewish law conform quite well with American law, although more in form than in substance. The imperative of Jewish law is to champion the plight of the weak, the destitute–those who have no voice in a cruel world.
And Rabbi Wolmark did just that. He felt that these women with no recourse must not be left with that horrible choice that vindictive husbands offer them: “Either abandon your adherence to your religion or be consigned to a life of solitary loneliness forever!”
The mere sound of this devil’s offer causes a person to shudder–but this is the reality that these women face, notwithstanding the view of the secular press that these barriers exist only in the woman’s mind. No, the Faustian choice these women face is both real and heartbreaking.
Jewish law does provide instructions to a Jewish court of law as to how to proceed in such cases: the Mishna (the first-century repository of Jewish law in Israel) instructed the once autonomous Jewish system of jurisprudence to force the husband to give the get. This “forcing” was codified in the Shulchan Aruch–the fourth legal system.
And so the question to Rabbi Wolmark remained what to do. Does he stand idly by and allow these women to suffer a veritable hell on earth? Or does he threaten to violate, and perhaps sometimes embark upon violating, one of the four systems of law?
The situation is somewhat reminiscent of a horrific situation which a cardiologist friend of mine found himself in a number of years ago. It was during Passover at a Sharmel Caterers retreat in the state of Pennsylvania. An elderly gentleman had suffered a heart attack on the golf course. The New York cardiologist knew exactly what was wrong, but was not licensed in the state of Pennsylvania. The local paramedic who had just arrived on the scene told the doctor that if he so much as touched him, he would call law enforcement to haul him away. It was against the law to save him.
Rabbi Wolmark is a selfless man who has championed the rights of women for decades. I know of several cases where he spent days attempting to advise and assist women in peril. Whether they were cancer victims who he helped to find the right course of treatment, or others facing the most difficult challenges of their lives, Rabbi Wolmark has always exemplified the highest ideals of loving-kindness and chivalry.
One may legitimately debate his alleged methods and quibble about the ultimate disposition of how halacha views a forced get. This author has, in fact, done that (http://www.5tjt.com/the-cattle-prod-get-a-halachic-analysis/). But there is no question that this is an altruistic man who was dedicated to assisting women trapped in the no man’s land between two systems of law.
As a community, we should look to help him in whatever manner we can. And we should do what we can to convince the prosecutor and the judge to take these factors into strong consideration. May we all not know from more pain–neither the wives nor the husbands. Amein. v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A version of this article was published at 5TJT.com on November 7.