LAKEWOOD, N.J. — Yisrael Briskman's wife in Israel wanted a divorce, and a rabbinical court decided she should be granted one. But Briskman refused and fled to the United States, where the FBI says an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and his wife lured him to their New Jersey home, kidnapped him and said they'd bury him alive in the Pocono Mountains if he didn't relent.
Briskman said he was kicked repeatedly in the ribs at the home in Lakewood, robbed and shown the dark body bag he'd soon inhabit if he didn't free his wife from their marital bonds.
"For you to get used to the size," Rabbi David Wax is quoted as saying in the criminal complaint leading to his surrender to the FBI this month.
If this Sopranos-style plot is true — which the Waxes deny — it is an anomaly. But it's not uncommon for religious communities to use coercive tactics to pressure recalcitrant husbands into granting their wives a "get," or religious divorce. Tactics run the gamut from denying social and religious privileges to using financial and legal leverage.
And while few cases involving unlawful methods have been reported to authorities, rumors abound in insular religious communities about what can happen to someone who keeps a spouse chained to a defunct marriage.
"They take the man to the water, to the Hudson River, and they put his head in and if you don't give the get, you're not coming out of the water," said Estelle Freilich, recounting a story passed back and forth in Brooklyn, home to some of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities outside Israel. Freilich directs the New York-based Agunah International, a group that aids women whose husbands refuse to grant them a get.
The issue grows from the intricacies of Jewish law governing marriage and divorce. In Orthodox Judaism, men and women cannot remarry without a proper rabbinical divorce. Other streams of Judaism in the United States, such as the Conservative and Reform movements, generally honor civil divorces and don't require a separate religious document.
Orthodox rabbis are required to try to reconcile marriages to prevent divorce, but if that fails, rabbinical courts can issue a divorce decree, or a "get" in Hebrew. But the get isn't valid until both husband and wife consent. If one party refuses, the other cannot remarry or procreate without the children being considered illegitimate and prevented from ever marrying religious Jews.
The aggrieved spouse becomes "agunah" — Hebrew for "chained."
Religious officials say the vast majority of divorces in their communities are resolved amicably and rarely get to the agunah stage. But disgruntled spouses will occasionally flout the rabbinical courts, either out of spite or in an attempt to extort money or secure favorable divorce conditions. A husband might tell his wife he'll grant the get for $100,000, said Dov Hikind, a New York State assemblyman whose Brooklyn district includes many of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
"It's one of the most horrendous things I've ever had to witness," Hikind said. "Women who sometimes for a great number of years are literally tied, their hands are tied."
The situation in the United States and the modern Jewish diaspora differs from that in Israel and the long-ago Orthodox communities of eastern Europe because of the issue of jurisdiction. Israel's religious courts are official legal institutions, and can impose sanctions on recalcitrant spouses, ranging from driver's license suspension to imprisonment.
A few hundred years ago, rabbinical courts in isolated Jewish communities in Europe had relative autonomy, said Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a member of the Beth Din of America, the country's largest rabbinical court. American rabbis operate within the realm of legal, protected behaviors to convince a spouse that a get is in order.
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