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October 15, 2013 8:33 am

Rabbi Soprano, the Cattle Prod Divorce Specialist

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Orthodox Jewish men and their children. Photo: Wiki Commons.

And who said rabbis don’t watch TV?

In an incident right out of the Sopranos, two rabbis have been arrested by the FBI for allegedly running a mafia-like scheme to beat up husbands who refuse to give their wives a get (Jewish divorce).

The rabbis were particularly creative in the alleged torture they used. If you thought circumcision was tough, try a cattle prod to the genitals. As Rabbi Mendel Epstein allegedly said in a wiretap, “We take an electric cattle prod … You put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.” I’ll say.

It’s safe to assume that an electric shock to places where the sun doesn’t shine will get a man to sign just about anything, from a bill of divorce to a document disclosing the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa’s remains.

But far from being comedic, the story of the rabbis-who-brutalize-husbands-who-chain-their-wives-in-marriage has been extremely damaging here in the United States, and not just because these rabbis come across as criminal and crazy. Rather, the infusion of money into the story – with $10,000 allegedly being necessary to obtain a Jewish court’s approval and another $50,000 for muscle to beat up the spouse – has made the whole thing sound like a money-making racket.

Now, that may not be fair to the rabbis involved, whose intentions might be noble. But even the desire to help a chained wife does not justify violence and breaking the law. We rabbis, at most, use our hands to gesticulate during speeches. Not to beat people up.

And yet, the chained wife remains one of the most vexing problems in organized Jewish life. So let’s examine the possible remedies.

Firstly, it is a husband who, in Jewish law, grants a divorce because, as in marriage itself, it reflects the natural gravitation of the masculine to the feminine. It is still men who ask wives to marry them, and it is men who must grant the divorce. But we Jews are not Catholics. We allow not just the annulment of marriages, but actual divorce. Marriage is not a prison sentence and no one should be incarcerated in a loveless or abusive relationship.

Jewish courts are meant to protect the interests of a woman by pressuring a husband to grant a divorce when a wife wants out. If counseling has failed and the marriage cannot be retrieved, we don’t force a wife into a cell called matrimony.

And here is where the system has failed. In Israel, where Jewish and secular law can intersect, it’s easy to throw a recalcitrant husband in jail for refusing to grant a get. Here in the United States it’s much more challenging.

Still, there are plenty of remedies open to our community that mystifyingly have not been fully embraced. A recalcitrant husband can be shamed by having his name published in newspapers and billboards. He can have his synagogue membership revoked and be barred from entry, even on the High Holy Days. He can be refused an aliya (call-up) to the Torah. He can be ostracized by the community, barring him from all communal events, including weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, and, as a last resort, he can be excommunicated.

What we understandably can’t do is put electrodes on his genitals.

But why haven’t our rabbis employed the totally legal remedy of shaming him? Why isn’t there a concerted effort to punish these husbands by publicly exposing them? Where is the rabbinical will that will bring about a Halakhic way?

Granted, the cattle-prod-to-the-nether-region gang might be taking the whole thing to an extreme. But if we’re going to condemn them – as we should – must we not propose a legal alternative? Or will we choose the safe route of condemning only the rabbis who have at least made an effort – albeit a highly illegal and violent one – to remedy the problem rather than the mercenary husbands who are responsible in the first place.

Everyone in the orthodox community knows some woman who has suffered without a get, the victim of a husband’s shakedown or abuse. Maybe he used the get to obtain custody of the kids or to minimize his alimony payments. Perhaps his intention was making his wife’s life as miserable as he feels his is. But one way or another, he used Jewish law in a manner it was never meant to be used, namely to blackmail a woman.

And the rabbis watch and do next-to-nothing. Then we wonder why these things end in some horrible story like the cattle prod, grossly embarrassing the Jewish community and demonstrating the ossification, rather than the modern relevance, of Jewish law.

If we don’t want Judaism to become Boardwalk Empire, we need to find peaceful, legal, yet effective, means to punish those in our community who would rob a woman of the gift of renewed companionship after a failed marriage.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” has been named by The Washington Post and Newsweek as “the most famous Rabbi in America” and was the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year competition at the millennium. A recipient of The American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary, he has just published ‘The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • william lopez

    These cattle prod rabbis should have the
    cattle prod used on them.
    They give the jewish religion a very bad name
    I consider them a bumch of low life thugs
    who should be locked up in jail for the rest of
    their lives.
    In another country they would have already been

  • Moti

    Hi with respect to Rabbi SB it is not so simple – pressure and coercion to give a get (including communal shaming) is not permitted in all situations according to halacha.

  • shloime

    rabbi Boteach,

    you tactfully omitted a key factor in all of this: shaming a generous “macher” can be detrimental to a rabbi’s standard of living.

    having encountered the absurd situation of an orthodox rabbi refusing to enforce the ruling of his own beit din (he had stepped aside because the case was against his shul, but wouldn’t even speak out when his members refused to follow it), i can vouch for the fact that a ruling of a beit din carries a lot less weight than a strategically applied cattle prod.

    the numbers cited in the news story seem to indicate that demand in the get extortion business is limited (about 1 a year on average), and it’s not a terribly lucrative business (not enough to get rich on, once you cover expenses). only innumerate anti-semites would stress the financial side of the transaction.

    but for a frum woman looking to have children before her “biological clock” runs out, priceless!

  • Lawrence Kulak

    Why does Rabbi Boteach insist upon writing about an issue that he is largely ignorant of? Is it just because he knows that he has a flashy pen? The fact is, that in a large number of cases where a get is denied, it is because the husband has been provoked in some unconscionable way in order to satisfy the needs of a Rabbinical Court to order a get. How many times have Jewish men been arrested by wives who use the knee-jerk criminal justice system we have to have them arrested on trumped up abuse charges? I recently met a man whose wife had him arrested twice for screaming at him. The stupid and corrupt NYPD are supposed to at least search for marks of abusee on the victim but instead they just haul the guy away. Or what about going to family court and making up stories of child abuse so that the husband can’t see the kids? Are the husbands then supposed to respond benevolently and grant a get to someone who manifests such hatred toward him? Granted there are cased where husbands utilize pure spite tactics, but if those cases were so limited, you probably would not have so many Rabbis willing to ignore Rabbinical contempt orders from a Bais Din. Such cases, know matter how few or many should be highly publicized and enforced so that the husbands with legitimate claims against their wives should not be turned into pariahs or stuck with cattle prods for witholding a get.

    • Dave Calin

      Agreed. You obviously know what you are talking about, far more than S. Boteach, who seems to be of the same misconceptions as most of the orthodox community. One would think that he, being “out in the world,” would have a more open minded understanding, & the need to determine the actual facts!

  • Marky Kar

    You said: “But why haven’t our rabbis employed the totally legal remedy of shaming him?” To your earlier point, there is no money to be made in shaming a congregant.
    I also don’t understand why some women seemingly are in such a hurry to have a get given. If they are so observant as to want a get, surely it’s not to start gallavanting with other males right away. And if they want to be able to in a hurry start to date and then get married to another guy, how is it that it is seemingly so easy for a divorced woman to find another partner so quickly, whereas with the larger Jewish singles population, there is a crisis in dating and marriage?

    • Dave Calin

      Good comment. When people come to us on these issues, my wife almost always states “that there is no GET emergency”! The feminists & their RWOB (Rabbi’s without Batzim”)have hurt women,in the long run, by pacifying their immediate wants, instead of addressing their long term needs! And the best interests of the family as a whole!