The Agunah Problem and Secular Public Opinion

Warning: this post is a departure from my typical games/geeks/feminism/media/design posts. This is going to switch over into a dangerous topic for most people – religion. You have been warned.

Today, an old colleague of mine shared an article from the New York Times onto my Facebook feed. In between posts about New York Comic Con, I read an article about Rabbi Mendel Epstein, who was busted by the Feds in a kidnap-for-hire scheme. Federal agents posed as women in the Jewish community in a sting operation and caught Epstein selling himself out as a kidnapper and torturer. Now why, you’d imagine, would a rabbi do this? Well, he’s not just kidnapping and torturing random guys, folks. He’s kidnapping guys who won’t give their wives divorces.

Let me explain how this works.

Traditionally in Judaism, a man is in sole control over whether or not a marriage may end in divorce. A woman may wish to get a divorce, but the husband is the only one who can actually grant that a divorce will occur. Try to think about that for a second. No matter the situation, no matter what may be going on within the marriage (infidelity, abuse, ect.) a woman may not be divorced from her husband less the husband wants it to happen. Should a man refuse to give his wife a divorce, that woman is not free within the religious community to get into another relationship or, especially, get married. She is trapped in limbo, sometimes with her children in tow, until her husband can be convinced to grant her that divorce. She is known as an Agunah.

This situation wasn’t always as a result of men in the relationship just being heinous louts. The classic stories of women left as Agunot (that’s the plural) in history come from women left in that horrid situation when their husbands went on a long journey and never returned. A more modern example is a husband gone MIA during war. In both cases, a divorce was not granted and no one could be sure that the man was dead, so the woman was stuck as an Agunah either until the situation was resolved… or for the rest of her life. Yet the modern problem has arisen that men have used this structure to effectively extort their wives for the divorce, or else hold them hostage in the relationship entirely. Men in these relationships often demand cash, cars, houses, or even the kids in divorce proceedings before they’ll grant the papers to the wife. And if she can’t pay or won’t give over what’s wanted, she’s trapped.

Enter folks who want to help. They run the range from organizations that try to advocate for Agunot, like ORA (Organization for the Resolution of Agunot) or Agunah International, who advocate for helping resolve the plight of these women.

But you also get guys like Rabbi Mendel Epstein. And some tazers.

Rabbi Epstein - Photo credit: The 5 Towns Jewish Times
Rabbi Epstein – Photo credit: The 5 Towns Jewish Times

I read through the article on Rabbi Epstein’s exploits with a cringe. Why? Because this kind of behavior isn’t an unknown story. I’d heard stories growing up about guys who would try to ‘convince’ a man to give his wife a get (a Jewish divorce). I’d heard stories about the women in question trying everything they possibly could to convince the community, the man’s family, anyone possible, to use what influence they had to help her get a divorce. If you want to read a story about one woman in this horrible situation, check out the webcomic called Unmasked: The Ariella Dadon Story. Heck, even the alleged knee-breaking rabbi himself put out a call over the internet, asking folks to support a Women’s Bill of Rights that would modernize a Jewish woman’s rights within her marriage. While organizations try to resolve things and offer support, and advocates try to get laws changed in religious courts (which is exceptionally, almost impossibly, difficult), some guys drive out there with baseball bats or whatever is needed and take matters into their own hands.

They could help the situation, too. Or else they might end up busted by undercover Federal Agents. Go figure.

Now, there’s a lot about this that is awful. The fact that Rabbi Epstein allegedly took a great deal of money to do this disturbs me, no doubt. Yet what bothers me more about this situation was reading through the New York Times article and feeling the weight of the almighty secular view coming down on the community. “Look at that backward culture,” it seemed to say. “Look at their odd ways. The Feds had to step in and stop a man from kidnapping and tazing members of his own community! For shame!”

Ah, let’s feel some of that good, old fashioned, out of context judgement. Long may it reign.


It is fantastically problematic that Rabbi Epstein allegedly committed multiple felonies (and crossed over state lines to do it!), all the while supposedly getting paid tens of thousands of dollars. But it is more problematic in my mind for the New York Times to write about the arrest without providing cultural context for the Agunah epidemic in their article. Reading the text as written, it is almost impossible to explain why a man would randomly hire himself out to women in the Jewish community as a leg-breaker. Why he’d put men in cars, take them into New Jersey and effectively torture them with tazers. Does it matter why he did it?

Why yes. Yes it does. It provides context and a window into one of the biggest social injustice epidemics in the Orthodox Jewish Community. One that deserves the media indigence and outrage that is being leveled towards this rabbi. Where is the headlines about women being abandoned by their husbands, often without any of the financial support needed to provide for themselves and their children? Where is the outcry articles about women in abusive relationships unable to get away from their abusers to continue their lives because they are trapped by this religious law?

Please understand: I am in no way condoning what this guy did. Although it is SO tempting to me to say ‘I LOVE that this guy took a taser to guys who trap their wives in an unending level and religious nightmare’ I’m also not advocating vigilante, knee-breaking justice. What I’m really talking about here is hopeless misunderstanding and external-culture privilege. The article is a textbook example of a complex religious issue tackled by an external force with no deep understanding of the culture it’s dealing with. As someone who grew up Orthodox, I saw the problem of the Agunah first-hand in women I’d met, and I can say that even I cannot possibly understand the horror of the situation fully. Yet this article doesn’t even brush the surface of explaining things to an audience that doesn’t get why this crime even happened. It’s journalism without context and (perhaps unintentional) spinning of the facts to make the situation look bizarre, and out there. Look at the crazy rabbi, it almost screams, look how backward.

Where are the articles about the Agunot of America in the New York Times? Guess their story isn’t as sexy as kidnapping for hire. Still, even those articles would probably mirror a lot of the ideas I heard from secular friends of mine on the topic. Namely: why don’t the women just leave? Forget the religious divorce and just GO. Well now that’s also a culturally unaware viewpoint. Sure, a woman can up and go. She can leave her culture, her community, her religion, go out into a world where she might not know anyone or at least be unfamiliar with the secular culture. She can abandon her heritage, her beliefs, and therefore be free to do… what? To change her whole life drastically? Speaking as someone who left the community, it isn’t that simple. And more than that: why should these women have to?

The fact that men still hold the power over these women within the community is deplorable. It is a backwards horror, a right as archaic as the notion that a man should control a woman’s future in ANY culture, anywhere, on this our modern earth. If this article brings anything to the surface, it’s that people within the community are willing to literally commit felonies to try and rescue these women from lives of harassment and isolation. And while we should not raise up those who are committing assault to resolve what is a heinous misogynistic law, we certainly can use this opportunity to raise awareness to the plight of these women. So perhaps in the future we won’t need the knee-breakers in the first place.

NOTE: If you want to know more about the situation of Agunot in the United States and the world, please visit the following links:

Agunah International

Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA)


  1. Maybe it’s wrong, but I do kind of lovAgunot the Rabbi. I can even understand taking money, after all the potential downside for him is “die in federal prison”.

    Now with a little luck the facts about Agunot will make it at least into the Slate/Salon level of mainstream news, probably via the feminist blogosphere.

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