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The Horror of Withholding a Jewish Divorce: Looking Beneath the Surface of A Horrific Law

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Many find the following impossible to believe: According to Jewish law only a husband, and never a wife, can "give" a Get, or Jewish divorce. Although a Jewish woman can delay the process of a divorce, she must eventually acquiesce if her husband wishes one.

A vindictive husband, however, can refuse a Get til the end of time. For observant Jewish women seeking divorce, or even those who are nonobservant, yet traditional in wanting to honor custom, or honor the beliefs of their parents, this is the most bitter of pills. When this happens Jewish law forbids either to marry (a great plus for a guy who wants a life of no strings); and, unless there is a change of mind, the women is forever branded with the shameful name "agunah," meaning chained woman.

Many women who are divorced according to civil law have given up the hope of ever receiving a Jewish divorce. With the event of "no fault" divorce, which usually promises eventual freedom in civil courts, withholding the Get remains a way to dominate, ridicule, and imprison. Often, the Get is also used as a bargaining chip in matters of finance, custody, and visitation. Religious women often give up financial security for themselves and their children to, in the words of my client, "finally leave jail." Until recently, this antiquated and merciless law and how it is used has not gotten press. But no longer is this true.....

Aharon Friedman, the 34 year old counsel for the Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee, and whose boss Michigan's Representative Dave Camp now chairs this committee, is withholding a Get from his wife, Tamar Epstein, 27. The couple were married in 2006, have been civilly divorced since April (a process they mutually agreed to engage in), and share custody of their three year old daughter.

Mr. Friedman, however, who claims he did not want the divorce, is angry because his former wife took their daughter from the home they shared in Maryland to her parents' home in suburban Philadelphia. Although the custody order gives him three weekends a month with his child, Aharon Friedman is an Orthodox Jew. He will not drive from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, which means he can only see his daughter three Sundays a month. Though he and his lawyers have not publicly said this, his use of a degrading and humiliating law is one way he can retaliate.

But these tactics have not worked out well for Aharon Friedman. No longer quietly trying to handle a case of a stubborn husband in their own religious backyards (which often does no good whatsoever), prominent rabbis have used the Jewish press to condemn Mr. Friedman. Further, a YouTube video shows 200 people, including a rabbi with a bullhorn, men in yamacas (skullcaps) and women with covered heads outside of Mr. Friedman's home, with signs that read the truth: "Withholding a Get is abusive," "Free Your Wife," and "Do the Right Thing." This spectacle cannot please the new Ways and Means Chair, who is being publicly urged to force his counsel to behave in a far more gentlemanly fashion.

In my practice, I have seen religious women, and those wishing to honor their parents' beliefs, agonize, even become emotionally and physically ill, when a Get is withheld. I have also seen men, ashamed of their past behavior who wish to marry again, lie to the Jewish Court about their status according to Jewish law. And I have seen heartsick men, as well as women, use vindictive means when their security and control are threatened.

This present reaction to a cruel and prejudiced law is long overdue. However, the state of upheaval in the Friedman family is really a call for more than an attack of a horrific law and how it is used to shame, humiliate, and in this case (I believe) retaliate. It is also a cry to take matters of custody and divorce outside of all adversarial arenas, placing such decisions instead in the hands of skilled arbitrators. With the help of consultants in areas of family psychology, the law and finance, these professionals can insist that rational behavior and the well being and safety of children and the home that is their primary residence is the foremost concern.