Surely a rabbi wouldn’t order violence!!1!

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A story broke a few weeks ago about some rabbis in New York using violence to obtain Jewish bills of divorce. If you haven’t seen it, here are some excerpts from this story:

Orthodox women who are unable to obtain a get from their estranged husbands cannot remarry in the faith.

The group allegedly would charge the wife $10,000 each for the three rabbis on a religious court to approve the kidnapping, and $50,000 to $60,000 to hire the thugs who would do the actual violence.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a Yeshiva University professor […] said Friday that no religious court can authorize violence to coerce a divorce under Jewish law.

This has been explored in an episode of the Sopranos where Tony and his crew are the gang hired for this. The man continues to refuse to give the get saying they are welcome to kill him. The “breakthrough” is Tony’s idea to threaten to cut off his genitals instead. The real-life news story has a parallel. It’s alleged that the thugs gave electric shocks to their victims’ testicles until they would sign the get — presumably since these leave no trace of the violence.

This is all horrible stuff but the news sources were puzzled by a few things: Why does this even seem necessary to some people? How can rabbis endorse violence? How can there be a religious decree for violence? R. Tendler’s statement (which implies a No True Rabbi fallacy) is I think a misleading copout. There’s more here. To start, a little background on the get or bill of divorce.

When the Torah talks about divorce, it only ever mentions the idea of a man divorcing his wife. There is no provision for a woman divorcing her husband. This idea is not changed in the Talmud and rabbinic law – unlike some areas (eg. lending with interest) where the Talmud effectively goes against the Torah.

This means that a woman who cannot obtain a get cannot marry someone else, since this would be adultery. This would happen if her husband went missing (and wasn’t confirmed dead) or if he was an asshole and just refused. Either way, she would be an agunah or woman who is “chained” to her marriage.

This is considered a “legal problem” in Orthodox Judaism up to this day, hence the kidnapping rabbis. Rather than solve the problem, rabbinic law has tiptoed around it. For men going on dangerous trips, the Talmud discusses ways in which they an give their wives a conditional get so that if they go missing she can remarry after a certain period of time. As for husbands who just refuse to grant a get, rabbinic law has decided to exert “strong community pressure”.

Now, just to understand how far this could go, there’s the concept of makkot mardut. These are extrajudicial lashes given for an “offence” for which the Torah does not prescribe violence. But Talmudic law considers rabbis to have the power to impose these on anyone for close to any infraction. This is even to the point of beating someone to death — if the rabbis consider the issue important to the community and that the person should be made an example of.

So, the legal instrument to start beating people up is there. The main reason this isn’t more common is that Jewish communities have rarely had the self-governance required for this. Plus of course Jews have taken on lots from the cultures of the countries they live. Beating the shit out of people would not be socially acceptable even if a country were to allow halakhic courts to administer violence. Although, there are rabbinic courts today who do carry these out (eg. this story of someone given a whipping for singing in front of a non-segregated audience).

In the case of the refused get, emotions run super high. The husband is literally putting his wife’s life on hold, and has the power to do so. Naturally, he is considered utter scum by pretty much all but himself. Including these rabbis. In fact, as codified by the 10th century Ashkenazic sage Rabbeinu Tam, the recalcitrant husband can be punished with shunning, refusal of honours and even imprisonment (Sefer HaYashar, Response 24; Rema, Even HaEzer 154:21). The main reason he ruled against violence was that it would look bad to the Christian majority. This is the ruling that’s been incorporated into modern practice and culture. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Why do people then balk at rabbis condoning violence? I reckon it’s the usual privilege associated with anything religious. There’s a presumption that religious people will be upstanding, moral and so on. This is not true, and it’s particularly dangerous if yiu think that an oppressive religion like Orthodox Judaism is benign.

There is one other sad dimension to the story. This is a complete pseudo-problem. I don’t mean from the perspective that there is no god or the Torah’s not true etc. That part’s obvious. But this is an own goal even from the perspective of Orthodox rabbis. There’s a saying among the cynical about Judaism: Where there’s a rabbinic will there’s a halakhic way, meaning some instrument in Jewish law that can generally be used to the desired effect. Yes it might be a bit challenging to do an end-run round the Torah but it’s been done so many times before that I don’t see how it can’t be made to work.

This then is reality: a sad tale of torture and violence made sadder by the story’s patriarchal origins and Orthodox rabbinic belligerence.