Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting

Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting April 21, 2014

It’s especially crucial for journalists to, well, GetReligion when the story is about a “get.”

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:

Instead, Mr. Kin, who in recent years moved to Las Vegas, has repeatedly insisted that Ms. Kin agree to binding arbitration from one particular religious court based in Monsey that is controversial and has been widely denounced by rabbinical authorities in the United States and Israel. Several leading rabbis, including the chief rabbinical office of Israel, have said they would not accept a divorce document signed by this particular court. Mr. Kin has said that the head of the beit din, Rabbi Tzvi Dov Abraham of Monsey, granted him dispensation to marry again.

On what basis has that religious court been denounced? And by whom in the chief rabbinical office of Israel?

The Times quotes a rabbi saying that “any man is able to call himself a rabbi and any three rabbis are able to call themselves a court.” But since that rabbi organized a protest against Meir Kin’s wedding, he’s not the most disinterested observer. The Beth Din of America, a religious court founded in 1960 by the Rabbinical Council of America, would have been a good source to quote here.

The Times showed some enterprise in asking about Kin around the Orthodox community in Vegas, learning that Meir Kin has worshiped at two Chabad Lubavitch synagogues. A Chabad leader says they’re reluctant to kick him out, yet won’t count him toward a quorum for prayer “because of the controversy over his divorce case.” Although the article doesn’t point it out, the situation illustrates the fact that ostracism doesn’t have the potency it had a couple of generations ago.

And just when the article is wrapping up, it brings up polygamy in Bible times — how the patriarchs didn’t have to part with one woman to hook up with others. In quoting a rabbi who disparages Meir Kin’s new marriage, the Times says: “Mr. Fromowitz conceded that Mr. Kin had historical precedent to rely on. After all, he said, the biblical patriarch Jacob had four wives.”

That depends on your definition of a wife. Fromowitz, or maybe the Times reporter, may have been relying on a quick Google search of the keywords “Jacob wives.” Those searches would yield four female names: Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah. But another click in Wikipedia would reveal Rachel and Leah as his wives, and the latter two as their handmaids. Yes, Jacob bore sons by them all; but the Bible never says that qualifies them as wives.

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3 responses to “Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting”

  1. Mostly off-topic, but irresistible: I would have written the headline, “Don’t divorce a NYT article…,” thinking that “NYT” is pronounced “New York Times,” and takes “a” as its indefinite article. Your headline uses “an,” which implies “NYT” is pronounced “en wai tee.” Is this a matter addressed by AP (or some other) style? Or is it a matter of personal preference?

      • Many abbreviations, like “AP” or “NBC” are usually pronounced by their letters. But I never hear anyone say “en wai tee” aloud. If they want to shorten the complete title, I hear people say, “The Times.”

        Mostly, this is the first time I’ve noticed that there are different ways of reading (and therefore writing) such abbreviations. It sparked both curiosity and amusement.