By Larry Gordon
One of the more popular and talked-about columns we’ve run in this space over the last few months was our discussion with Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Brooklyn. Rabbi Epstein is a rabbinical-court dayan (judge) and more frequently serves as a toein, an advocate, representing one side or another before a rabbinical tribunal. The column on Rabbi Epstein and his more than 30-year career in this business created a lot of furor, both negative and positive. The reaction broke down along pretty simple and understandable lines. Those he represented successfully liked him very much; those whom he opposed in beit din and won cases against harbor a great deal of hostility toward him.
But that doesn’t faze him as he goes about his business with confidence, knowing that the halachah, Jewish law, is on his side and is protective of the best interests of his clients. The rabbi says that about 75% of the caseload he carries deals with marital woes, while the balance deals with business-related disagreements.
We deal with issues that affect singles in this publication on a regular basis. For example, on the front page of this week’s issue, the new director of the National Council of Young Israel, Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, has an article asking readers to respond and submit ideas on how to deal with the ever-growing singles crisis in the Orthodox Jewish community.
That is both good and fine, but there is much less emphasis and very little light shone on the flip side of the shidduch equation: that is, divorces–all too often of young people–and how they affect the fundamental institution of marriage in our communities, and what bearing they have on families.
So I asked Rabbi Epstein, who has cases referred to him by rabbis around the Jewish world, to help us better understand what is going on and how to deal with these situations, some of which are rather disturbing and frustrating just to hear about.
But first the rabbi notes it is important to understand the basic difference between what goes on in a beit din and the way a court of law functions. “The court system seeks to adjudicate a situation as defined by many intricate laws and statutes on the books,” he says. “On the other hand, beit din has just one objective–to seek the truth.”
He adds that there are various nuances to different rabbinical courts, which can subscribe to and adhere to different policies, and that he must be mindful of the differences as an advocate. For example, Rabbi Epstein says, the beit din of the RCA–Rabbinical Council of America–operates more like a secular court. I asked him to explain that characterization and he said that the RCA beit din will accept affidavits from witnesses on a matter, while most other rabbinical courts require witnesses to appear in person, as prescribed by one interpretation of Jewish law.
While Rabbi Epstein says that, as observant Jews, we should prefer to adjudicate these issues in a rabbinical court, attorneys involved in these very same issues while working with the cooperation of Jewish courts see advantages in the civil court system as well. Esther Schonfeld, a Cedarhurst-based attorney of the firm Schonfeld and Goldring, says that when it comes to people being required to adhere to a court’s decision, secular courts are much more powerful and effective than the rabbinical courts are.
“A beit din cannot hold someone in contempt of court for not showing up to a hearing,” Ms. Schonfeld said, “and a beit din cannot issue enforceable orders as it affects short-term custody or support issues.” She adds that, on the other hand, Orthodox Jewish clientele may feel more comfortable in a beit din environment, where there is extra sensitivity and understanding accorded to religious practices.
For Rabbi Epstein, as stated above, the rabbinical court represents the endeavoring to use truth to determine the reality of a situation. To him it means a great deal that, whatever the differences are between the parties, they can be adjudicated and resolved in a familiar environment.
I had the opportunity to discuss with Rabbi Epstein some of the more critical suggestions about the way he practices his craft that were related to us in the aftermath of the previous article that appeared here. I told him that one rav from Brooklyn called to say that Rabbi Epstein is unscrupulous in his approach and that he practices what he called “a heter meah rabbanim factory.”
Rabbi Epstein responded that while he is currently in the midst of writing such a contract, the fact is that over the last three years he has only been involved in one such case. A heter meah rabbanim is a controversial application of Jewish law, for a case where a man wants to issue a divorce (a get) but his wife refuses to cooperate or accept it. As an alternative to a conventional get process, 100 rabbis sign on to a document that halachically frees the man and allows him to remarry if he so desires. At the same time, the man writes a get for his wife and she is informed by the beit din that the get is available to her. Once she takes possession of the get, she is halachically free too. Some of Rabbi Epstein’s critics say that the way in which he goes about securing the heter is not authentic and that, even though the get may be written by the man, the get is hidden, thereby preventing the woman from remarrying. Rabbi Epstein denied the charge, saying that the suggestion was patently false and without any basis.
Far more interesting than these details are the cases that both practitioners like Rabbi Epstein and Ms. Schonfeld have been involved in over the last few months. It is not the details of the cases per se that are so fascinating, though they are indeed that, but rather the comment that the fact of these cases makes on the little internal society we have carved out for ourselves in these troubling times.
Mendel Epstein does not hesitate to say that he is busier than ever working on divorces of young and old alike. Esther Schonfeld and her law partner Aliza Goldring are also as busy as ever. The reasons for the divorces are not always conventional. Rabbi Epstein says that he is now working on two cases where couples have been married more than 35 years, with grown and married children and grandchildren, and now want to divorce.
He says the cases are similar. In both, he explains, the men are older and dealing with some infirmities and are, in addition, verbally abusive to their wives. “One of the women told me that she has no intention of marrying again,” Rabbi Epstein said. “She just does not feel that she has to put up with abuse.”
Another couple that he is advising is young, married six years with five small children. The husband says that his understanding was that he was going to learn in yeshiva for life and that she would make do and struggle to support the family. She says that, with so many young children, it is just impossible to hold down any kind of job. He says he can no longer focus on his learning because he is consumed by worry about his debts and whether the checks they have written will bounce. She says that things have changed and that he needs to go out to work. He says that he cannot work and had planned to always be in yeshiva.
Rabbi Epstein says that he asked the young man if he had read his kesubah, which states his obligation to support his wife and family. He says the young man answered that everyone knows the stipulations in the kesubah are not to be taken seriously, and that he is simply not cut out for working. She says that all they do now is argue and fight about money. She says that she wants a get so that at least while the kids are visiting her husband she will have some downtime and be able to get some rest. She also told the rabbi that she hopes that after the get she can put together some money to go to Israel “and strangle my seminary teachers that sold me on this kind of lifestyle and the family they ruined.”
A lot of the young couples today have an unrealistic vision of what married life is really like, especially once the babies start arriving. It’s not a storybook tale but about real-life hardships that very often require sacrifice. “A lot of the women were inspired by the book about Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, who served her husband R’ Chaim with great mesirus nefesh day and night,” the rabbi says. But these young women are just picking parts of the story that they are drawn to and intrigued by. “Rebbetzin Kanievsky was not interested in a winter vacation in Miami Beach or a hotel stay for Pesach.”
A case that Esther Schonfeld is working on deals with a young couple with two small children. The couple agreed that there would be no TV in the home but her husband, she says, has been spending a lot of time on his laptop computer. She had the computer checked out one day while he was at work and discovered that he was watching sports. She confronted him and he admitted that he had always been a football fan and that watching a game on occasion helps him relax. Ms. Schonfeld tried to reason with her, as did members of her family, but it was to no avail. The husband said that it is true that he agreed not to watch TV but that he misses sports. She said that she doesn’t care and that she wants a divorce and wants to raise her children alone instead of in a home with these types of distractions.
It’s an unbelievable story, so I asked her to repeat it a few times and Ms. Schonfeld insists that this is precisely what has transpired. Thankfully, these stories about couples and families in crisis are in the minority. Still, the stories of divorce and broken families are growing at an alarming rate that has even the seasoned practitioners shaking their heads in disbelief. “Something has got to change somewhere along the way,” says Rabbi Epstein. “Otherwise, things are just going to continue spiraling downward.” v
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