Aharon Friedman is refusing to give his ex-wife Tamar Epstein a Jewish divorce called a get. Without a get a religious Jewish woman cannot remarry and is known as an agunah, a chained woman. This is despite the fact that financial matters and custody issues have already been settled in the secular courts. He is thus inflicting great emotional abuse upon her.
The Jewish community recognizes this and great rabbis have signed a contempt order encouraging people to shun him. The rabbi of the synagogue at which he and Tamar worshipped has now urged congregants to avoid him and made clear that he is not to be given any honors in the synagogue.
Yet, Friedman still retains one position of great honor and power which the rabbis cannot touch -- senior advisor to Congressman Dave Camp, Chairman of Ways and Means Committee.
Camp's office has rebuffed attempts by the Jewish community for him to urge Aharon Friedman to give a get.
Camp's office has said that this is an internal religious matter in which they do not want to get involved. The argument is as follows: It would be wrong for Camp to tell Friedman not to eat a ham sandwich on Yom Kippur, and so too, it is wrong for him to advise Friedman to give a get.
The difference here is that Friedman's behavior is damaging and causing injury to another person. It has been recognized by the secular courts as emotional domestic abuse.
Furthermore, the fact that Friedman's offensive behavior is religious should not make him immune to criticism from his boss. For example, Reverend Fred Phelps is engaged in the deeply offensive religious practice of protesting at military funerals in the name of God and he is criticized by many for this religious behavior. The fact that a practice is called religious does not inoculate it. If it is causing pain to people it should be harshly criticized.
And so Camp continues to receive counsel from Friedman on important policy matters. Indeed, more than one person has told me that Friedman is a powerful and respected person in Camp's office.
Moreover, there is even room for debate as to whether or not it is a religious matter or a matter of simple right and wrong that the secular world has an interest in.
There is precedent for both the secular courts and elected officials to care deeply about the get.
Secular courts have concluded that a get is a civil matter that is capable of a secular court's review. In Minkin v. Minkin, 180 N.J. Super. 260 (1981), the court said: "The get, which has no reference to God but which does affect the relationship between the two parties, falls into the latter category and is, therefore, civil and not religious in nature."
And secular courts have spoken out strongly against husbands withholding a get from their wives. Even though the actual ruling was later vacated on other grounds, it is significant to note the court's words in the following case:
Giahn v. Giahn, 223 N.Y.L.J. 25 (2000) vacated by Giahn v. Giahn, 290 A.D.2d 483 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. 2002).
"The State of New York has made painfully clear that it will not tolerate perversion of the Jewish Get process into an unconscionable instrument of coercion by husbands who have the sole power to cause delivery thereof, a situation putting wives at the mercy of unscrupulous, often sadistic husbands."
"It also hopefully sends word out to unscrupulous husbands who torture their former wives in this manner that the courts have reached zero tolerance for this sadistic practice."
And finally, state legislatures and elected official have spoken out against husbands withholding gets from their wives.
Here are the words of New York's Governor Mario Cuomo's Memorandum Approving New York Dom. Rel. Law § 253, also known as the New York Get Law:
"The bill was overwhelmingly adopted by the State legislature because it deals with a tragically unfair condition that is almost universally acknowledged....The requirement of a Get is used by unscrupulous spouses who avail themselves of our Civil Courts and simultaneously use their denial of a Get vindictively or as a form of economic coercion."
Governor Cuomo's words represent the voice of moral clarity about this issue. They indicate that just because the matter is of a religious nature it does not give the right to elected officials to avoid their responsibility on the matter.
I don't think Governor Cuomo would ever have tolerated Aharon Friedman's behavior in his office. Dave Camp and the Republican House leadership need some moral guidance on this issue.