Cries of "shame on you" and "do the right thing" echoed through the Warwick apartment complex in Silver Spring Sunday afternoon, as some 300 protesters transformed a divorce dispute involving two Orthodox Jews, one of the a staffer of the ranking Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee, into a public crusade.
As you read this, please keep in mind that a man's obligation to give a get, a religious bill of divorce, is independent of any beit ruling ordering him to do so. That means that even absent such a court ruling, the man is required to give the get under the circumstances Aharon Friedman finds himself in.
That Rabbi Yisroel Belsky – who opposes reporting pedophiles to police unless rabbis first approve, and who presided over Agriprocessors humane slaughter violations without doing anything to halt them – holds differently should not be a surprise given his long track record of criminal and near-criminal rulings.
A get is not a bargaining chip so the male can get better custody arrangements or money. And anyone who rules otherwise is perverting halakha, often not for the first time.
Taking sides - Hundreds rally for 'chained woman,' others support husband
by Adam Kredo • Washington Jewish Week
Cries of "shame on you" and "do the right thing" echoed through the Warwick apartment complex in Silver Spring Sunday afternoon, as some 300 protesters transformed a divorce dispute involving two Orthodox Jews into a public crusade.
The shouts were directed at Warwick resident Aharon Friedman, who refuses to grant a religious divorce decree, known as a get, to his ex-wife, Tamar Epstein, leaving her an agunah, or chained woman, who, according to Jewish law, is barred from marrying again until she receives a get.
Epstein's supporters maintain that Friedman has refused to issue the get because he is unhappy with a Maryland court's ruling governing when he may visit the couple's 3-year-old daughter, who is living with her mother in suburban Philadelphia.
They accuse him of unjustly withholding the document to extract visitation concessions from his ex-wife. (Their marriage was formally dissolved by the Montgomery County Circuit Court in April, nine months after the court had ruled on visitation arrangements.)
"We simply will not tolerate that type of abuse," Jeremy Stern, director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, an organization that supports chained women, told rally-goers over a bullhorn. "We won't tolerate it as a Jewish community."
Epstein, in an e-mail interview Monday, maintained that Friedman's actions are "motivated by nothing more than spite and control."
Friedman's camp, however, counters that he is morally justified in withholding the get until a fairer visitation agreement is worked out. Under the court order, he is permitted to visit his daughter every other weekend beginning at 6 p.m., making it virtually impossible for him to leave his job as a congressional staffer early enough on Fridays to arrive in Pennsylvania before the Sabbath during the winter months, he maintains.
After their marriage had begun to disintegrate, Epstein, 27, left the couple's Silver Spring home in April 2008, bringing their daughter to the Philadelphia area to live with her parents until late June of that year, under the terms of a reconciliation agreement, according to court documents.
Unhappy that Epstein did not return the child to the Washington area by late June 2008, as required in the agreement, Friedman, 34, filed emergency court papers asking that Epstein be prohibited from again removing the child from this area. On Aug. 1 of that year, both parties were awarded joint legal and physical custody, the latter referring to day-to-day responsibility for the child. But in granting Epstein primary physical custody nearly a year later, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Robert Greenberg criticized the behavior of both individuals.
"The plaintiff [Friedman] has yelled at [Epstein] in the presence of the child during drop-off for visitation and has expressed his dislike of her relatives," the judge said in his ruling, noting also that Epstein had exhibited an "indifferent approach" to ensuring that her daughter had a "mutually rewarding" relationship with her father that was "rooted in spite and is not beneficial to the child."
The visitation times "are not acceptable at all" for a Sabbath-observant Jew, Rabbi Eliyohu Ben Dahan, former director of the Israeli Rabbinical Courts, wrote in a letter that appeared earlier this month on a Silver Spring listserv.
In a separate missive also issued this month, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Rabbi Yisroel Belsky also came out in Friedman's favor, explaining that, in his opinion, a get need not be issued before "workable and practical" terms are set. "In the case of Aharon and Tamar Friedman," he concluded, "the scheduling of weekend visitation is non workable and a travesty."
Other rabbinic authorities, however, have backed Epstein, decreeing that once a civil court resolves a divorce, there is no excuse for a man to deny a get.
"Despite the fact that a civil divorce is already final," Friedman is unethically holding Epstein hostage, wrote Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, a dean at the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia.
Friedman, who, according to Halacha (Jewish law) must issue the get voluntarily, can't leave Epstein chained to the marriage merely because he is dissatisfied with the court's ruling, insisted Miriam Colton, ORA's director of cases.
Several attempts to reach an equitable agreement with Friedman were rebuffed in April, noted Frederic Goldfein, a Philadelphia-based lawyer representing Epstein.
Two proposals "which would give [Friedman] more visitation and special weekend visitation" were rejected, said Goldfein, who maintained that the 6 p.m. commencement time for visitation has not been etched in stone. Rather, he said, "what's happened is we're using two hours before Sabbath as the time we can begin" Friedman's visits.
Reached by telephone earlier this week, Friedman declined comment. His supporters, however, claim that Epstein and ORA "have turned what should be a matter between her and [Friedman] ... into a nasty public slander campaign that is harmful to all involved."
ORA has repeatedly misinterpreted the facts surrounding the case, the pro-Friedman forces have contended, and has been acting with "reckless disregard" by distorting facts surrounding Epstein's move to the Philadelphia-area, as well as the amount of time Friedman has been permitted to spend with his daughter.
A get would be promptly given, they said, if Epstein "returns their daughter to Silver Spring or even Baltimore."
"Aharon," his supporters wrote in a recent statement, "is committed to giving a get after he and Tamar have agreed on a fair, workable and sustainable custody arrangement that allows their daughter to have both of her parents involved in her day-to-day life."
Complicating matters, however, is that no beit din, or religious court, has ordered Friedman to issue Epstein a get. Initially, the case was being handled by the Baltimore beit din, a proceeding that was apparently halted when the secular courts took up the matter.
Eventually, jurisdiction was handed over from Baltimore to the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, also known as Vaad, which made clear in a recent community letter that, currently, "there is no bet din order for Mr. Friedman to give a get."
Authority, the Vaad said in its letter, was recently handed back to Baltimore after the beit din there "reasserted its jurisdiction."
Currently, the Epstein-Friedman case remains open but dormant, as "neither party has approached" the Baltimore beit din, requesting that it reconvene, according to Rabbi Mordechai Shuchatowitz, a rabbi on the court.
"Right now," he said, "the ball is in [Epstein's] court" because, as the party seeking the get, she is responsible for reinitiating proceedings.
Since the court has yet officially to order a get, Shuchatowitz said, it's "a bit premature" to be holding rallies and other events meant "to pressure [Friedman] because he's not been given his day in court." After all, "you can't disobey something you've not been told to do."
Yet Epstein -- as well as ORA officials and rally-goers in attendance Sunday -- said it's ludicrous to wait any longer before going public in an attempt to "shame" Friedman into doing the right thing.
"How long does one wait?" wondered Stanley Goldis, 65, a picketer from Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "It's already been about two years. I would agree it's premature if this were a year and a half ago, but at this juncture it's becoming a last resort."