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American Rabbi Authors 'The Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife'

Rabbi Mendel Epstein says he is disturbed by the number of women who suffer from the "system" of divorce in the Orthodox community.
By Kochava Rozenbaum
First Publish: 8/28/2013, 2:44 AM

Chief Rabbinate of Israel deals with Divorce
Chief Rabbinate of Israel deals with Divorce
Flash 90

The 5 Towns Jewish Times wrote an article last week on the “proliferation of divorces” in the Jewish Orthodox community and on the current system that fails to protect women struggling to “navigate their way through difficult or bad marriages.”

The newspaper interviewed Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Brooklyn, New York, leader of a Jewish community, an experienced judge, and “to’ein”, the Hebrew term meaning “advocate” who represents on behalf of someone in front of a Rabbinical court of law. Rabbi Epstein has over three decades of experience dealing with over 2,000 Jewish divorce cases and felt the need to express the suffering he has seen due to the current system.

“There are so many women left in limbo by the process,” Rabbi Epstein claims. “There is hardly a family in the community that is not dealing with divorce or a yeshiva that does not have one or two children at minimum in every class whose parents are either in the process or already divorced.”

There is a need for “airing these issues out in public,” and therefore, Epstein has articulated his points in a formal set of guidelines called, “Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife.”

“I have authored the Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife to clarify and strengthen the rights of the Jewish wife because I am disturbed by the number of women who find themselves in unbearably difficult situations due to incorrect hashkafa [views] and advice that they have received and therefore come to blame the Torah and Rabbis for their plight,” the Rabbi wrote.

Among the items on the Bill of Rights are the followiing basic halakhas: a wife must be treated with respect and not be abused, a woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get [divorce document], she is entitled to be supported by her husband according to the ketubah [Jewish marriage certificate], a husband is obligated to honor and respect his wife’s parents, and she is entitled to a normal conjugal relationship.

In regards to the increasing amount of divorce cases within the Orthodox community, Rabbi Epstein points out that many divorces are a result of infidelity in marriages, indicating that infidelity often begins “with people coming and going freely in and out of each other’s homes.”

He said that there is no age restriction on these circumstances that end in divorce. He added that they affect those who have been married a few months as well as those married a few decades.

Rabbi Epstein additionally noted that these cases dramatically impact women and children involved and can translate into feeling resentment towards the Rabbinical Court process, and as a result to Rabbis in general.

“Don’t minimize the impact this is having on frum [religious] homes, as mothers begin to view trying to live according to a halakhic [Jewish law] or Torah lifestyle as being a prime cause of their problems,” Rabbi Epstein says. And he adds that this attitude can easily trickle down to the children, where it can emotionally resonate for years.

However, “it’s not the Torah and it’s not the rabbis that are at fault or responsible for all the misery, heartache, and broken marriages and families out there,” Rabbi Mendel Epstein says. Above all, it is false ideals and misguided advice which have cause the divorce rate to invade communities.

Rabbi Epstein says he has shown his Bill of Rights to several leading rabbinical figures who agree with his honest approach and have encouraged the Rabbi to publicize these points.

Among those who endorsed his approach are Rabbi Peretz Steinberg of the Queens Vaad HaRabonim, Rabbi Hershel Kurzrock of the Rabbinical Alliance and Igud HaRabbonim, and Rabbi Moshe Bergman, a prominent Rabbi dealing with divorce cases in Brooklyn, all mainstream Orthodox figures.

Rabbi Epstein highlights his frustration by rehashing a story of one of his clients, a woman who has been waiting to receive her get [Jewish divorce document] for more than three years. Rabbi Epstein relates that he contacted the Rabbi who was stalling the divorce who said that the husband “requires a therapist as a third party to independently verify that the marriage could not be repaired or saved.”

In this case, there was already evidentiary proof that the husband was no longer observing the Sabbath and was also already dating other women. Rabbi Epstein established that there is no basis to back up this opinion and that “all this ignorant approach does is prolong the process and increase the suffering, usually on the woman’s side of the equation.”

He explains that the goal of many of the rabbis involved in these situations is to keep the couple together and try to keep the family unit intact. This may look like the best situation from the outside, but internally it can be doing more damage than anyone can imagine. “There are a lot of stupid women staying with their husbands,” the Rabbi says, “even though by right the marriage is over and for everyone’s good they should be out of there.”

Aside from infidelity and disloyalty in a marriage, divorce stems from economic pressures. He states clearly that “a woman is entitled to be supported by her husband,” and that this is clearly and unequivocally defined in no uncertain terms in the ketubah that is the documented centerpiece of every Jewish marriage.

He states that another flaw in the system is that women turn to the municipal courts for help, when they should turn to the Rabbinical Court in order to be free from their destructive marriages.  Although, Epstein does say that there are some times where going to court first is beneficial, especially when there is a particularly obdurate and uncooperative husband involved, because they can force him to reveal his assets.

At the conclusion of the interview, he spoke about why he believes there is so much dysfunction in marriages and divorces in the community; the young (and not-so-young) men who are untrained husbands and have never had to deal with compromise, doing without something they want and the complexities of life. They are not tested or evaluated and all too many do not even make it to morning minyan. They see their parents as an ATM machine.

“The main reason many young people are just not ready for marriage or parenthood is that many of the boys are just sitting in yeshiva. So when Mr. Spoiled marries Ms. Spoiled, why are we shocked that they cannot make a marriage work or successfully assume the responsibilities of parenthood?” he asks rhetorically.