Is Tamar Epstein free?
The Modern Orthodox, agunah-minded, and Jewish/religious/feminist blogospheres (a small and particular world, admittedly) were abuzz yesterday with the news that Tamar Epstein, whom I in the Times dubbed the country’s most famous agunah, or chained wife (that is, her husband has withheld from her a religious divorce) is now “free.” This news appeared on her Facebook page and in a press release e-mailed widely by activist group ORA, the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot.
But several people with intimate knowledge of the situation have confirmed for me that Epstein did not in fact receive a get, the writ of religious divorce. One could infer this from the wording that she is now ”free,” with no mention of a get. Rather — and I am a bit fuzzier on the details here — it seems that a beit din, or religious court, has anulled her marriage, ruling that it was never valid. Historically, traditional Judaism has recognized certain grounds for anullment, such as the witnesses to the marriage contract being invalid, or if the husband had an illness that he did not reveal to his wife at the time of the marriage.
Epstein’s supporters have for years searched for grounds for an anullment, as it has been clear that her husband — by civil law, her ex-husband, as they have a divorce — has no plans to grant a get. (He is angry about custody arrangements and Epstein’s settling with their young daughter outside Philadelphia, far from his D.C.–area home, where they lived as a family.) It seems that Epstein has finally found some grounds to persuade a beit din to annul the marriage.
What were the grounds? Nobody is talking. One idea that has been bandied about among more progressive Orthodox rabbis is that any husband who would be cruel enough to withhold a get is, by that fact, mentally unwell — in which case he could not have made a valid marriage. Did Epstein find a three-judge rabbinic panel to agree with that reasoning? Or did they find that a witness to the ketubah, or marriage contract, is no longer leading an Orthodox lifestyle, and thus is not a valid witness? Those are two possibilities.
This declaration could prompt a real schism between some Orthodox and other, more right-leaning Orthodox Jews. If this case sets a precedent, rabbinic courts may begin “freeing” more women, who go on to re-marry, while their husbands are convinced the old marriage is still in effect. Then, the children produced by the new marriages will be considered mamserim, or bastards — a huge stigma in Judaism. The children will be shunned, the mothers will be shunned, and the rabbis who performed the women’s second marriages will be written out of some precincts of Orthodoxy.
To which those women, and their rabbis, and their male and female supporters, could say: “Who cares?” And if they have a critical mass of support, it is they, not their ex-husbands and their supporters, who will be marginalized. I once asked a prominent Orthodox rabbi how many rabbis it would take to support new, more liberal measures to free agunot. “90 percent,” he answered. “If 90 percent of Orthodox rabbis were with us, the other 10 percent could scream ‘Mamersim!’ all they wanted, but they’d fall in line.”
If anyone has more information, drop me a line at email@example.com
UPDATE: A source close to Friedman also said that no get was given.