Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark, both rabbis, were arrested after an FBI sting where they offered to kidnap and torture an undercover officer’s fictitious husband to force him to grant a “get.” Under Jewish religious law, husbands must write a bill of divorce, and give it to their wives. Otherwise, the wife becomes an “agunah,” which prohibits her from remarriage. Of course, in the United States, women are free to get a civil divorce, child support order and maintenance whether or not the husband gives her a get, so this is all voluntary religious observance. She is not practically compelled to do anything.
However, it seems that where the civil law comes into conflict with religious observance, the effect is such that religious practice is compelled to bend toward an approximation of the state of affairs in the culture at large. This is probably the explanation for why some rabbis are violating the spirit of religious law in order to obtain an outcome more in line with American cultural norms. Nevertheless, the following story is pretty extreme:
The FBI said Thursday that agents arrested rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark in a sting operation, where an undercover posed as a woman who wanted out of her marriage. Orthodox rules allow only a man to initiate a divorce.
The men allegedly asked for tens of thousands of dollars to target husbands, and claimed they did jobs like this every 18 months in their community.
The criminal complaint alleged the two rabbis boasted of a plan to use electric cattle prods, plastic bags over heads and other methods to persuade reluctant husbands. In the sting operation, the FBI said the pair earlier this month even helped scout a warehouse in Middlesex County to hold husbands hostage.
The rabbis allegedly met in Rockland County in August to authorize the kidnapping-for-divorce-plot. They said they wanted $10,000 for the kidnapping and $50,000 to $60,000 to pay a “tough guy.”
In one exchange with an undercover posing as an unhappily married woman, Wolmark allegedly told her “you need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end.”
“You need to get him to New York where someone can either harass him or nail him,” he allegedly added.
First, if it weren’t for the pressure modern divorce law puts on traditional marriage, this wouldn’t be happening, because there would be no market for it. Paying rabbis to fix a get has a counterpart in Catholicism with the annulment procedure. Annulments are the fix Catholics use to get religious sanction for their divorces, and they come at a price (although not such a high one). Modern divorce has created business opportunities for traditional religions, and this will inevitably lead to corruption of both the religion and the law.
In most cases, not such severe corruption – the above rabbis, if guilty, are truly despicable criminals – but even so it will have an enervating effect on cultural, religious and civil institutions. The solution is for the state to withdraw from the marriage business, and let people handle it according to their own conscience. While some may argue that it doesn’t do us much good to have many different competing versions of marriage, it’s far worse for married people themselves when they must live under two sets of laws.