Guest post by Michael Lesher an orthodox Jew, a practicing attorney, and the author of numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics including Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014)
Dear Ms. Hersko:
Last week, as Rabbi Mendel Epstein and several Orthodox Jewish co-defendants went on trial to face kidnapping and extortion charges, a letter percolated throughout the Orthodox community, purportedly written by you – Rabbi Epstein’s daughter – that urged all Orthodox Jews to pray fervently for the defendants. The letter did not mention the guilty pleas already entered by some of those charged, leaving the reader to assume that you seek acquittals for the accused regardless of whether they actually abducted and tortured men, as alleged by federal prosecutors, in order to force them to grant religious divorces to their wives.
I do not know you, and I do not know for certain that you actually wrote this letter. For my present purpose that is unimportant. In responding to the letter, I am not writing to you personally; instead, as an Orthodox Jew myself (and therefore one of the intended recipients of the appeal), I want to address some very troubling claims the letter makes.
I will not waste time on the charge that the federal prosecutors are crypto-Nazis, motivated by “pure evil,” whose true “end game is to arrest and imprison as many Orthodox Jews as they can.” That sort of thing is too childish to require a response; I mention it only because it was purportedly written by a practicing lawyer who boasts of being “very familiar with secular courts, witnesses, litigation, etc.” in criminal as well as civil matters. One can only marvel that you, a devoutly Orthodox Jew, have been able to work in that system for so many years without noticing (until now) that it houses a vast anti-Semitic conspiracy. For that matter, it’s pretty astonishing that someone who can write “we must not be quick to judge others” and “we must watch every word we say” can also insist, in the same letter, that Rabbi Epstein is being prosecuted by a gang of vicious bigots – without presenting the slightest evidence to support the charge.
However, this seems to me a less serious matter than the central argument implied by your letter, which is that Orthodox Jews have the right to break the law – or, at any rate, that the courts have no right to punish them for breaking it – because of “the separation of church and state.” You seem to maintain that if coercing a man to divorce his estranged wife achieves a desirable result “according to Orthodox Jewish law,” it is right and proper for rabbis to coerce him (by what means you don’t specify) because otherwise “our women” will “suffer” under the peculiar Talmudic rule that does not allow a woman to remarry until her ex-husband presents her with a written bill of divorce, or get.
Your father’s lawyer offered a similar argument in his opening statement at trial, so I do not think your version of it resulted from carelessness. I only wish it had. For in my opinion, every religious Jew should find the thesis deeply disturbing – both because of what it says and because of what it doesn’t say.
First let us confront the fact, honestly, that behind all your claims of victimization you are really demanding, for rabbis like your father, the right to make victims of other people. To protect Orthodox women from the consequences of rabbinic law, you demand that Orthodox rabbis be above the law. To aid the Jewish community, you ask us to pray for an environment in which rabbis are free to do as they like – to harm, bribe or threaten whomever they choose – so long as what they do serves the imperatives of religious law as they understand it.
Now it should be obvious that if this principle were applied consistently – and every lawyer knows that any such principle must be applied consistently or not at all – the results could only be disastrous. According to the logic of your letter, a clergyman can commit any crime with impunity if the act is sanctioned by his religion. If a statue or icon offends his notions of idolatry, he has the right to blow it up. If he sees someone violating a ritual law, he has the right to knock the offender over the head until the violation stops. In fact, it is hard to see how you could condemn even the most extreme acts of religiously-based terrorism once you have granted Rabbi Epstein carte blanche to do whatever he wants to recalcitrant husbands.
As I said, this ought to be obvious – and so the most frightening thing about your argument is the way your parochialism renders you incapable of seeing where it leads. As you put it, “This specific trial is a trial about us. Orthodox Jews” – which is to say that, in your view, to prosecute a rabbi is to prosecute all Orthodox Jews. Or, to put it a bit differently, Orthodox rabbis make up a class so special that they cannot be equated with other people, who are bound by the criminal law; to hold an Orthodox rabbi to the same standard is to attack the Jewish community. That is really the linchpin of your argument – and it is so deeply ingrained that you seem quite unable to notice how monstrous its implications are.
That is bad enough, but there is something else you don’t see, or at least don’t say, that I find just as unsettling. Your letter proceeds from the premise that challenging the right of Orthodox rabbis to commit crimes denies Jewish women the only means of obtaining the religious divorces they deserve. In your own words, if rabbis can’t beat or threaten unwilling husbands, every divorcing Jewish woman will be “left to rot” in the event “her husband refuses to give her a get.”
But is that true? Must it be true? Aren’t Orthodox rabbis precisely the people best situated to modify or reinterpret religious law so that both of the wrongs at stake – a divorced woman unable to remarry, a man subjected to criminal assault – can be avoided? Wouldn’t the rabbis’ energies be better spent in that direction than in doing what Rabbi Epstein is accused of doing – namely, committing felonies for a hefty fee? If the problem really is a religious one, as you insist, why not seek a religious solution for it, instead of endorsing an illegal one?
That you hope to see your father acquitted is, of course, perfectly understandable. And up to a point I agree with you: if these defendants are innocent, or if there is insufficient evidence to convict them of the serious crimes for which they’re charged, then they should be acquitted. But your letter goes beyond that, and what it seems to advocate, far from appealing to me as a religious Jew, is shocking at every level. In the name of religion, you are prepared to condone crime. In the name of justice, you demand a place for Orthodox Jews outside the law. In the name of protecting the weak, you want virtually unlimited power for Orthodox rabbis over other Jews. And in the name of decency, you publicly slander Rabbi Epstein’s alleged victims, to say nothing of federal prosecutors (and much of the government and court system, to boot).
All of this is presented, in your letter, as if it represented an uncontroversial statement of religious truth. And to me, frankly, that is the most disturbing thing of all. Has our community really sunk so low that this brutish logic, this Mafia-mongering with a Yiddish accent, is the best way we know to appeal to the Almighty?
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