A few times each month, in the borrowed meeting room of a Madison Avenue law firm, a small group of rabbis meets to commit women's liberation, Orthodox Jewish-style, by dissolving marriages.
Convening as a religious court, or "beit din," the rabbis say they are freeing women trapped by 4,000-year-old Jewish law that leaves divorce entirely to the husband. Deuteronomy 24:1 says a husband wishing to end his marriage must write his wife a bill of divorce, a "get" in Hebrew. Without that document, she is an "agunah," an anchored woman barred from remarriage in an Orthodox ceremony. Any future children are illegitimate in Orthodox eyes.As these rabbis interpret scripture, however, when a husband denies his wife a divorce, a beit din may annul the marriage.
"We are liberating these wives," said Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, one of five rabbis who take turns on the three-man panel they call the Supreme Rabbinic Court of America. Rackman, who commutes to Israel where he is chancellor of Bar-Ilan University, said the opposition "doesn't want to recognize there are Jewish battered wives and men who are not compassionate."
In the past century, Reform Judaism abolished the get as outmoded. Conservative Jews allow rabbinic courts to end marriages. But the get remains vital to America's 600,000 Orthodox Jews.
Critics say Rackman and his colleagues are misguided, and worse.
"It's sinful," said Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, chief presiding judge of the Rabbinical Court of America, the legal authority for the country's largest Orthodox organization. "If you break Jewish law," Schwartz said from his Chicago office, "it's a sin."
While most Orthodox rabbis dismiss the annulments as invalid, at least 25 rabbis in the United States and Israel recognize them and will perform marriages for the women.
The new beit din fills a dire need, Rackman and allies say. The women who plead their cases are most often victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse and greedy husbands. Typically, after a civil divorce, the former husband demands a huge sum of money or other concessions such as full child custody in exchange for a get.
Women from all over the world come to these rabbis. Many, advocates say, were abandoned by their husbands, who found new mates and fathered children - legitimate under Jewish law. Some get-less women with large families rely on welfare, forbidden an intimate relationship with another man.
Since the Madison Avenue court first convened in late 1996, more than 130 women have pleaded cases and most have received annulments, said Rabbi Moshe Morgenstern, an accountant by profession who does most of the court's legal research. "We have cases were women have been blackmailed for thousands of dollars in order to get the get," Morgenstern said. "This is the moneymaking machine we have busted, and they don't love us for this."
The number of stranded women is unknown, as are precise figures on the rate of Orthodox Jewish divorce. But observers say both are on the rise. In times past, when the Jewish community was more isolated, a rabbinical court held more power and influence to help such women. Today, that influence has eroded.
To help, New York State allows a civil divorce judge to consider a husband's refusal of a get when dividing marital assets.