Man who won’t grant religious divorce to ex-wife is given rabbinical sanction

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of a synagogue. The correct spelling is Israel Shomrai Emunah. This version has been updated.

September 29, 2011

Aharon Friedman is a religious outcast.

Friedman, a legally divorced, 35-year-old Capitol Hill aide, recently earned the dubious distinction of being sanctioned by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada. His offense: refusing to grant his former wife, Tamar Epstein, 28, a divorce under Jewish law, known as a “get.”

This renders her an “agunah” — a chained woman, unable to remarry within Orthodox Judaism.

The rare sanction is the latest twist in a bitter divorce and custody battle that involves Old World penalties not typically seen in family court. The rabbinical judgment could make Friedman subject to shunning by members of his faith: Potentially no more invitations to bar mitzvahs and weddings. Perhaps no more requests to read from the Torah during services. And, religious leaders say, he could be denied a seat at his Silver Spring synagogue for the high holidays, which began Wednesday evening.

Friedman declined to comment. But some Jewish leaders say his actions warrant the consequences.

“Whenever there is a messy divorce, there is always at least two sides of the story. But when the get is used as leverage, there is always one side,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox synagogue in the District, who is not directly involved in the dispute. “It is a misuse of our holy and sacred tradition to use the get in this manner.”

In centuries past, women typically became agunot when their husbands disappeared because of war or travel and there was no way to verify their deaths. In modern times, it happens most often as a result of marital disputes and separations. In the past five years, there have been hundreds of cases in North America, said Barbara Zakheim, founder of the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse of Greater Washington, who arranged a coming study of agunot.

Withholding a get is considered such bad form that rabbinical courts in Israel maintain an online list of recalcitrant husbands that includes photos.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum of Israel Shomrai Emunah, Friedman’s temple, said he was reflecting on the “possible implications” of the sanction, which was signed Sept. 8 and made public this week.

So far, some members of the congregation have been reluctant to turn their backs on Friedman without explicit guidance from religious leaders, but the sanction is likely to change that, said Debby Levitt, a congregant.

“If he can’t abide by the tenets of the community, he should feel the pain,” she said.

Dissolution of marriage

The dissolution of the Friedman-Epstein marriage began before the couple exchanged vows in 2006. Filings in Montgomery County Circuit Court depict an increasingly fractious union.

In its factual findings, the court said strains developed between Friedman and his soon-to-be in-laws during wedding planning. He “behaved in a distant and unfriendly manner during family gatherings,” the judge wrote. And Friedman didn’t like hanging out with Epstein’s friends.

During a 2007 trip to Israel, the couple argued over where to stay, and Friedman ended up at a hotel while Epstein stayed with family, the judge wrote. They argued over moving his things to make room for a nursery. After one disagreement, Friedman spent the night in his car.

The relationship didn’t improve after their daughter was born in November 2007, according to the findings. In March 2008, on Friedman’s birthday, Epstein told him she wanted a separation. Friedman agreed to move out of their Silver Spring apartment. He continued to see his daughter regularly until about a month later, when he came home to an empty apartment. Epstein had decamped with the baby to her parents’ home outside Philadelphia without telling him.

In May 2008, Friedman, under pressure from several rabbis, said his daughter could stay in Pennsylvania for two more months. He told a judge later he had agreed in hopes of salvaging the marriage.

“It was very painful for me to do,” Friedman said at one hearing. “I love my wife very much; I wanted to reconcile.”

Two months later, Epstein, who had enrolled in nursing school and had a support system of family and friends in Pennsylvania, said she intended to stay there with her daughter. Friedman filed an emergency motion to compel her to return to Maryland. “I’m losing my daughter,” he told a judge.

The court awarded primary custody to Epstein. Friedman received visitation rights every other weekend starting Friday evening — the start of the Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews do not travel. Under the latest court order, the visits begin Thursday, but Friedman remains unhappy with the arrangement.

Between the civil court proceedings, the couple made attempts to work through rabbinical courts.

But as far as the state of Maryland was concerned, there was nothing substantive left to resolve once the pair legally divorced in April 2010. Their assets had been divided and custody arrangements set. If either party wasn’t satisfied, he or she could ask a judge for changes.

The only outstanding issue was purely religious: obtaining a get.

Growing controversy

In an interview, Epstein said she spent two years trying to persuade Friedman to grant a get.

“I tried mediation, negotiation, soliciting people who had influence with him — colleagues, friends, family — and nothing has worked,” said Epstein, now a pediatric nurse in Philadelphia. “Unfortunately, I find myself applying pressure of a different sort, public pressure and religious pressure.”

In December, she stood outside his apartment with a couple hundred people wielding signs and a bullhorn in a protest organized by the New York-based Organization for the Resolution of Agunot. (“Free your wife,” some signs demanded.)

Jewish newspapers ran editorials urging Friedman to relent. Epstein’s supporters called on Friedman’s boss, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to lean on him.

As the controversy grew, leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community beyond Washington began inserting themselves.

The rabbis multiplied.

Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a prominent rabbi from Brooklyn, was one of a few Jewish leaders who spoke sympathetically of Friedman and criticized the court-ordered visitation on the Sabbath.

On a snowy day in January, Belsky huddled with the ex-spouses for hours in closed-door negotiations, to no avail. Belsky was one of six rabbis who signed the sanction.

So far, Friedman has offered no public explanation for why he has maintained his stance. But his advocates told Washington Jewish Week that Friedman has felt morally justified because of what he sees as an unfair visitation arrangement.

“It’s really unclear why he is withholding the get,” Epstein said. “In our circles, he really can’t move on and remarry and start a new family. It’s like being chained to a totally dead marriage.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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