Halachic loophole: Quick-divorce scam violates women

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Got a long, impressive beard and the keys to a once-respectable rabbinical institution whose founding father has passed away? Got no conscience, and no marketable skills?

Boy, have I got a business for you.

It's called the heter mea rabbanim, the 100-rabbi dispensation. Forget about the fact that this legitimate halachic tool was meant as a last resort to free husbands from an insane wife who couldn't accept a get, or religious divorce. It's got even better uses nowadays. And it's so easy to use. Say a husband wants to unload a troublesome wife because he's found someone less troublesome, but he doesn't want the sticky problem of a fair property settlement. So, you offer him your services as a rabbinical court that will get him this heter to take a second wife without divorcing the first.

This is how you do it: First, tell the wife you are now representing the husband, and send her a summons to your court (warning she has eight days to show up or you'll rule without her) and charge her with being a moredet, or rebellious wife. Then mail it so she won't get it in time to appear and ignore the fact she's started arbitration proceedings with another rabbinical court. When she doesn't show up, you write up a psak, or ruling saying she's an "apostate," and "not fit to live with and have sexual relations with."

Write that she's "ignored three summonses and a writ of recalcitrance." Say anything you want, since you never bothered to talk to the woman, and even the husband — when later questioned under oath — denies she's guilty of any of these charges. Minor problem. She probably won't sue: She's just a woman after all, and after you publish your ruling all over her close-knit Chassidic community, she'll have other problems, believe me.

Then you write up a fax with all this information and send it to your rabbinical colleagues in the Holy Land, asking them to sign on a "100-rabbi dispensation," to free the poor husband from the harridan. You use your letterhead. You have rabbinical relatives in Israel. Who will ask any questions? They certainly won't bother to call the wife, she's just a woman after all, and they are holy rabbis who don't talk to women, ptooey, ptooey, ptooey.

Then, signatures in hand — or perhaps not; you can always say you saw the signatures, but then threw them away — demand $50,000 to $100,000 from the husband for your services. He'll pay it gratefully, having already found a new woman, whom he'll marry in Florida (which doesn't recognize a religious wedding ceremony as binding, thus avoiding bigamy). He'll have a child and live happily ever after, making wife No. 1 an agunah — a married woman who is separated from her husband but halachically cannot remarry — for the rest of her days.

Sound good? Now, I must warn you that this business has its hazards.

Let's say, for example, the first wife just won't roll over. Worse, she hires a nice Park Avenue lawyer named Sullivan who sues you for being the corrupt, bribe-taking crook you are, forcing you to face a jury in a civil court, which plays by different rules from those you are used to back home in Boro Park and Williamsburg.

Such is the alleged situation now facing Rabbis Aryeh Ralbag, Zvi Meir Ginsburg, Haim Kraus, Elimelech Zalman Lebovitz and Solomon B. Herbst, aka the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada or Agudas Horabonim. The plaintiff, Helen Chayie Sieger, who has been battling this in court for years, now faces still another decision in August in New York's highest court.

When I read the legal papers in this case, a few things were particularly shocking to me (and folks, after all these years, I don't shock easily).

The husband withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars, then "forgot" what he did with the money. At exactly the same time, Ralbag and Ginsburg allegedly and mysteriously received payments from a third party for $50,000 each, which they promptly invested in lucrative bank shares. And this was not an isolated case. In the sworn testimony of another husband, Fred Frankel, Ralbag told him such a heter would cost him $100,000, at least half in cash. Rabbinical judges, as I understand it, aren't allowed to make any profit at all for their work according to halachah.

Nevertheless, the UOR defendants argue that "fees surely vary from case to case depending on each case's difficulty" and "a large fee may have been requested in the Frankel case because Rabbi Ralbag did not want to take the case and assumed that the prospective party would be deterred if the fee was high enough." Right.

This is what Chayie Sieger has to say: "Throughout their motion papers, the UOR defendants huff and puff about how outrageous it is that an Orthodox woman would turn to the secular courts for relief. And, in theory, they are right. I would have much preferred to have been able to resolve this case in a fair hearing before impartial and respected rabbinical judges.

"But because there is no appellate protection against corrupt and abusive Beit Din [religious court] practices, especially for women, I had no choice but to appeal to the fair and just procedure of the New York legal system…I have been waiting for two and a half years…During this time, I have endured constant threats, humiliation, attacks on my reputation, and personal and business pressures that I never dreamed possible and cannot even begin to describe to the court.

"At the flick of a wrist, these defendants destroyed my family and my life in the only community I have ever known, without any thought whatsoever for my dignity as a human being or of the procedures and principles of Jewish law…Hopefully, the result in this case will lead to the adoption of mandatory and regulated Beit Din guidelines and procedures so that in the future we can once again turn to our Beit Din system with pride."

Amen, Chayie Sieger. I hope you win for all our sakes. Especially for the sake of Heaven.