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Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

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Note to Dave Camp: Emotional Abuse Is Not Just "Gossip"

Posted: 10/19/11 01:00 PM ET

The powerful Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Dave Camp, responded to my recent article on the Huffington Post by saying it is just "gossip".

The article questioned Camp's refusal to take a position on the fact that his senior advisor, Aharon Friedman, was withholding a "get" from his wife, Tamar Epstein, and thereby possibly inflicting great emotional pain and suffering upon her. The article compared Camp's silence with that of other elected officials, who have taken a very strong stand against Jewish men who withhold a get -- under Orthodox Jewish law, the permission to divorce.

Now Camp has upped the ante. Not only is he not condemning the behavior of his own staffer but he is also dismissing the whole issue as mere "gossip."

This is an unfortunate choice of words on his part.

If a substantial accusation was made against one of his staffers that they were engaged in physical domestic abuse, would he dismiss it as gossip? Here it is not physical abuse, but I believe it to be emotional abuse, and we know that the wounds of emotional abuse can sometimes last longer than actual physical wounds.

Furthermore, the fact that Aharon Friedman is withholding a get is most certainly not gossip. This is not something that Aharon is denying. It is something that he readily admits and that rabbis across the country have condemned him for.

So what exactly is the "gossip" here? Is it the fact that this is an issue that involves the breakup of a marriage and is therefore a personal matter which Camp has no interest in?

Well, the fact that a woman is possibly being hurt is something we should talk about and care about a great deal. If there is a vulnerable woman in our community we need to reach out and help her and not dismiss her cries as gossip.

A woman whose husband is withholding a get is known as an Agunah, or a chained woman. The reason for this is because her husband is refusing to let her go and move on with her life. Even though the marriage is dead -- as it certainly is in this case as they are already civilly divorced -- he continues to hold power over her and dominate her daily existence. Such a situation is brutal and if we stand by and dismiss it as something we should not be involved in then we are no better than other bystanders in the history of acts of injustice who have refused to get involved.

This is not just about Tamar Epstein and Aharon Friedman. This is so much bigger.

On Oct. 18, 2011, a census of Agunot was released. The study uncovered more than 460 cases of Agunot over the past five years. This is a horrific number -- even one would be too many, but 460 is mind-boggling. This is a serious study that was organized by Barbara Zakheim and conducted by The Mellman Group, a D.C.-based national polling research firm. Major Jewish organizations, including the Orthodox Union, put their name on the study. Significantly, this study shows an increase in the number of Agunot in North America.

The fact that so many innocent women are being emotionally abused is something we should all care about. And by all of us, I mean Dave Camp as well.

Like it or not, the entire country often looks to Capitol Hill to set the tone and the mood for our entire country.

In this case, when the country sees quite possibly the most powerful congressman in our country employing as his senior advisor a man who unapologetically is withholding a get, the message is loud and clear. The congressman is saying: I am not concerned about the plight of these women and their "gossip." I have more important things to worry about. It is their problem, not mine.

How sad.