That religious divorce paper — called a “get” — is important for traditional Jews, especially Jewish women. Without it, they cannot marry someone else under religious law. That gives ex-husbands a whip handle over the women — either to coax money or property out of them, or simply to spite them.
The New York Times made a brave attempt to explore the depths of Jewish law over this issue (this one has been in the GetReligion “guilt” file for a while), and the related question of how to remain faithful to it while serving the obvious needs of women. The newspaper’s in-depth article brings out some lesser-known facts, and it couches the women’s dilemma in wrenching terms. But like such marriages themselves, the story doesn’t end well.
It opens with one of those spiteful husbands, Meir Kin, showing some chutzpah in a Las Vegas wedding, although he never gave previous wife Lonna a religious divorce. He’s holding the get hostage for $500,000 and custody of their son. Observers disparage the event, but the article suggests he just may get away with it:
Jewish law prohibits men from taking multiple wives. But Mr. Kin, according to several rabbis here, apparently relied on a legal loophole, which says that if a man can get the special permission of 100 rabbis to take a second wife, he is able to do so.
The case has become a powerful symbol for what activists say is a deepening crisis among Orthodox Jews — hundreds of women held hostage in a religious marriage, in some cases for years after civil cases have been settled. According to the intricate religious laws dictating marriage and divorce, only the husband has the power to grant a divorce.
“What has happened here is really shameful,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp, who drove from Los Angeles to protest the wedding, along with other rabbis and congregants from Orthodox synagogues there. “Not only is he in clear violation of Jewish law, but he is utilizing and corrupting Jewish law to commit cruel domestic abuse.”
The Times fluidly narrates Mrs. Kin’s efforts to get Meir to sign off on the marriage, even waiting until he filed a civil divorce and made plans to remarry. And as the newspaper explains, there are Jewish courts to resolve such issues, but Meir Kin apparently hasn’t approached one.
Props to the newspaper for getting emotional quotes from Lonna Kin. Comments like “I am chained to a dead marriage” and “He’s basically a bigamist, and basically, I’m just stuck.” It’s also a lesson about shutting out the media: Meir Kin declined comment, allowing Lonna’s quotes to stand unchallenged.
All this happened in Vegas but won’t stay in Vegas. As the Times reports: “Traditionally, Jewish communities relied on the threat of ostracism to persuade a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a divorce, but many say the threat became far less potent as these communities opened and spread out.”
But in documenting the problem, the story starts feeling squishy. The Times tells of a congressional aide who withheld a divorce, and a New Jersey rabbi who is accused of arranging the “kidnap and torture” of such men. But for some reason, in neither case are names, dates or places mentioned. And the newspaper should have tried to find out how many women are affected by men withholding a get: an estimate of “hundreds” of women is awfully vague.
The fuzziness even invades some quotes from authorities: