The Forward’s Screed On Rabbinic Court, We Respond
Last week the Forward published this first person article where a secular Jewish man described his Jewish divorce in a rabbinic court. It was seething with such palpable hatred of Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism that I read it on edge, waiting for the big reveal – for the grave offense that the beis din (rabbinic court) had committed against the author and his ex-wife. But there was none. It appears that there was nothing more than a man projecting his own insecurities onto other people and libeling an organization that does great work.
The organization in question is the Beis Din of America (BDA) – the leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic court in the U.S. Of course I cannot speak for every single case this court has ever seen, but having gotten involved in promoting the halachic prenup in the last year – a cause the BDA has spearheaded over the last twenty years (and one that helps level the playing field for women in the traditional Jewish divorce process) – I have heard from many a woman who had the misfortune of dealing with corrupt batei din. Time and time again they lauded the BDA for its professionalism and fairness. Had this article been about a crooked beis din it would have been a productive piece where we as a community could take a look at our shortcomings and find a way to grow. Unfortunately, this article offered nothing of the sort and by its end, I wondered if the entire gripe came about due to an unfortunate miscommunication (more on that later).
From the opening paragraph, which describes the BDA as “miserable” to the second paragraph which mistakenly suggests that a divorce is about “disposing” of a wife (traditional Jewish marriage and divorce was surprisingly progressive when it was introduced to the world thousands of years ago, essentially acting as a prenuptial agreement which keeps men from using women and then dumping them to fend for themselves and their children), to the swipe at the ketubah for being a “one-sided document” (it’s a one-sided document where a man promises his wife to take care of her physical and sexual needs!!), the article is littered with negativity. Even the way the BDA’s “musty little” office is described with its “ominous-looking [book] shelves” has a vitriolic tone. As does his description of the procedure itself: “A gruesome theater of the absurd” which took place in “the holy of holies.” Also, the scene that the author conjures up on his way to the BDA, “the ghosts of schleppers with handcarts laden with pelts and communist-leaning strikers marching down Seventh Avenue in the early 1930s whirled in my brain,” is so far removed from what actual Orthodox life looks like today.
The Forward did not seem to fact check this piece, but we did. I spoke to the head of the BDA, Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, by phone to clarify the various accusations put forth in the article. Rabbi Weissmann explained that the BDA specifically operates in an extremely inclusive way, never asking about level of observance or acting differently to more or less observant Jews, yet according to the author, he and his wife were treated like second-class citizens because they are not Orthodox: “My wife and I were treyf, and these men owed us nothing, not a shred of respect or care. We might as well have been invisible. I felt like dirt.”
For anyone familiar with the workings of a get ceremony, numerous factual errors jump off the page. The author explains that there are only three members of the court, failing to remember the key player in the entire process: the mesader get (officiator of the divorce)! Next the author claims that “With the get letter completed, we were summoned up front, and without explanation the scribe then took the beautiful hand-illuminated ketubah that my wife had brought along in a cardboard scroll, unrolled it, and without a word proceeded to slice off the signatures from it with an X-Acto knife.” Rabbi Weissmann explained that not only is everything explained beforehand, there is never an X-Acto knife used in this process – they simply write the word “void” over the husband’s and wife’s name to indicate that the document is no longer valid.
Then the author takes another swipe at Torah law, yet again saying something inaccurate after his wife is told she cannot marry a cohen now that she is divorced. According to him, “the priest class gets only vestal virgins. Divorcées, as Orthodox as they come, are still not good enough for a priest. Previously married treyf. Rejects. Used merchandise. What a nice tradition.” How and why a cohen is prohibited from marrying a divorcée is a challenging topic and beyond the scope of this piece, but it is important to note that a cohen is not actually required to marry a virgin. He can marry a non-virgin who was never married or a widow.
So what actually does happen in the process of a receiving a get at the BDA? According to Rabbi Weissmann, first and foremost, the BDA wants to make sure the experience is as comfortable and user-friendly as possible for everyone involved. He explained that while a wedding ceremony is imbued with hopes and dreams, the get ceremony is the separating of two lives and is full of sadness and disappointment. Therefore, the BDA does whatever it can to mitigate any suffering. Before the couple comes to the ceremony, they are sent this document which explains the process, which you will note is conducted in a very professional manner.
Also, many years ago the members of the BDA (which is compromised of male and female attorneys as well as rabbis) realized that the wife might feel outnumbered in the room as it is filled with men, so they started recommending that the wife bring along a friend so she has someone there to support her. Once everyone arrives and is seated, the mesader get who conducts himself in a polite, respectful manner explains what a get is, why they’ll be asking odd questions (they are aware the questions seem odd) and clarifies that they must make sure that the get is being given willfully, and properly includes everyone’s exact name.
So why this vast discrepancy between how Rabbi Weissmann explained how the BDA runs this ceremony and the author’s take: “here the standards of judicial decorum and respect towards the parties are appalling. These fellows are a disgrace to humanity and to their religion”? Well, I don’t know for sure, but this is my best guess: I believe the author came in with some baggage. Perhaps he’s been mistreated be some Orthodox Jews in the past or at least believed he was being judged. But I do suspect he attempted to come to this ceremony with a positive attitude as he describes, “I nodded as they entered conversing in Yiddish, and offered a curt “a gitn tug” to them in their own Galitzianer Yiddish accent. I speak the language fluently, but I was ignored.”
I believe that the beis din did not hear his “a gitn tug,” and then the author started conjuring up the most negative explanations as to why they snubbed him. “Apparently, to these men I was a shtik treyf, more impure than the impurest goy, because I am a Jew who is nonobservant, an apikoyres, thus a blasphemer and beneath contempt. Though fluent in their tongue, I am not heymish. I took no offense: I wasn’t at the beit din to shmooze in mame-loshn.”
I’m afraid all of the bad feelings and this entire article came about due to a miscommunication and then a failure to give others the benefit of the doubt. Being that we are now in the eseres ymei teshuva (the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur) it is my hope to clarify some of the inaccuracies and assuage some of these negative feelings. It is true that there are, unfortunately, some Orthodox Jews who look down on less observant Jews. Such attitudes should be condemned in the strongest terms. At the same time, there are secular Jews who believe that all Orthodox Jews are closed-minded and judgmental. So too, we must speak out against those kinds of hurtful generalizations.
Dear Sisters and Brothers – we have far too many enemies in the rest of the world to fight one another. May this New Year bring each of us a new understanding of those who differ from us, may we strive to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and may we merit to be written and sealed in the Book of Life.