November 13, 2013

Social Torah and the Aguna

Rabbi Haber

For the past week, like many others, I have been closely following the tragic story of Gital Dodelson and Avrohom Meir Weiss, since the story of their troubled marriage and divorce proceedings was publicized last week in the New York Post. The story, and efforts to help Gital receive a get, have spread far and wide largely due to facebook and other social media, and in just a few days seems to be producing results. An immediate focus of the campaign was to pressure Artscroll Publishers to fire Weiss' father and uncle, who occupied prominent positions in the company and also supported Weiss' refusal to give a get to Gital. It seems this effort has produced some results as Artscroll released a copy of a letter by these two individuals yesterday, suspending themselves from their positions "until the situation is resolved". From the perspective of Gital and her supporters, this was an important victory.

Because of their desire to harness public opinion to support their respective positions, both sides have published detailed arguments and supporting documentation on the internet. Avrohom Meir's primary argument and documents are available here, and there have also been updates in several posts on this blog, and Gital's can be seen on her website (see the "Documents" and "Refuting" sections).

By reading these materials, we can all understand the details of their dysfunctional marriage and the legal battles they are waging both in New Jersey secular courts and in rabbinic courts (battei din). While it is unfortunate that such painful and private matters have been revealed to the public, this affair does give us a rare window into an actual case of an aguna/mesurevet get , and I think there are some important lessons to be learned from it.

Here are three conclusions I have drawn:

  1. Gital is right and Avrohom Meir is wrong. He needs to give her a get immediately and unconditionally, and without any connection to any other ongoing disputes between them. Until such time as he does, any (non-violent, legal) measures any of us can take to pressure, embarrass and humiliate Weiss and his supporters to get them to comply are legitimate. This is sad, but it is the clear, indisputable and halachically correct conclusion.

    Some people feel that ANY woman who wants a get is entitled to it immediately, no matter what the circumstances, and that the husband is automatically wrong in such disputes. Personally, I think things are more complex and would not make a blanket statement like that. In this particular case, though, she is in fact completely right and he is completely wrong.

    I make this claim first of all because it is clearly stated in a letter (English translation here) signed by many extremely prominent American rabbis. Contrary to implications by the Weiss camp, the rabbis signed on this letter (with the exception of Rav Hershel Schachter) are not affiliated with Yeshiva University, but rather with the "right-wing/yeshivish" community to which both Weiss and Dodelson belong. Additionally, there is an official ruling by a prominent rabbinic court that declares Weiss in contempt of court.

    And finally, after spending a few minutes reading the arguments and documentation of both sides, it is absolutely clear that the Weiss camp is spreading lies and misinformation, and even submitted a forged halachic document to the court. It isn't hard to see that. They have made a number of claims that are clearly and plainly refuted by documentation published by the Dodelson camp, and in at least one case by a Hebrew-language document that they posted themselves (document "F").

    The most recent example of this is the resignation letter mentioned above, in which Weiss' father and uncle assert that "we had agreed to arbitration", implying that there had been an agreement. They also released a letter from the supposed arbitrator claiming to back up this claim. However, the Dodelsons then obtained and publicized an email from that same individual clarifying that they had never agreed to arbitration at all!

  2. These situations have to stop! The publicity generated by this case, and the revelation of details and documents, enable all of us to get an "inside look" at the anatomy of an aguna case, perhaps more than other high-profile cases have done. Even after, with God's help, Gital receives her get and moves on with her life, we will still be left with many other such cases, and with a system that enables this to happen again and again. This is a tragic situation, and as a community, we should not allow it to continue.

    Some Orthodox rabbis and spokespeople throw up their hands and say "what can we do? This is God's law, and there's nothing we can do to change it." On the other extreme, there are also voices in the Orthodox community arguing that (to use Blu Greenberg's famous phrase) "where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way", and that if rabbis really cared, they would solve this problem once and for all.

    Both of those extreme statements are partially true, but also partially false. It is, in fact, the case that according to Torah law, the only way for a married couple to be divorced is if the man gives his wife a get, and that can't and shouldn't be changed. And this means that, tragically (for reasons that I for one cannot understand), there may always be situations in which a woman who is no longer living with her husband may be unable to remarry. But at the same time, there are many halachically acceptable solutions that can greatly reduce the frequency of these tragedies, and can deprive recalcitrant husbands of the ability to abuse their wives by withholding a get in defiance of a bet din. This is not the place (and I am not the person) to discuss various innovative halachic devices that have been suggested, but one thing that any couple getting married can and should do is to sign a halachic prenuptial agreement (available here for couples living in the USA, and here for Israel). If Gital Dodelson had demanded this agreement she probably would have had her get years ago. If every couple getting married, without exception, signs one, this problem will be virtually eliminated.

  3. Social Torah? As stated above, I hope and pray that Gital Dodelson receives her get very soon. Based on early impressions one week after this story went public, I think there is a decent chance that she may actually win this one, with the help of God.

    It is quite instructive to contemplate how she accomplished this. Apparently, the Dodelsons hired a professional consultant to maximize use of the internet and social media to gain support for her cause. We are already seeing the results of that effort.

    I don't blame the Dodelsons for taking this approach – when your opponent is using illegitimate methods against you, you have to use any legitimate tools that you have. At the same time, though, as a community we ought to consider how much and under which conditions we want to allow the use of social media to determine policy and results. The internet and social media are powerful tools that have made incredible contributions towards the dissemination of Torah – but like all media, we need to be careful how we use them.

    Social media's power is its breadth of reach, but its weakness is its lack of depth. I wrote above that I concluded that Gital is right and Avrohom Meir is wrong because I read all of the documentation available in the case. Due to the internet, I was able to find and read all of the relevant arguments and documents from my own living room, and the whole thing took me about 15 minutes. But how many other people read all of those documents? Judging from comments on various websites and from the Weiss' very flimsy (yet apparently somewhat effective) use of misinformation, it seems most people don't read anything beyond the headlines.

    If we're going to use social media, we need to use it responsibly. I urge ANYONE who wants to take ANY action on this case (including signing a petition or joining any sort of protest, or even clicking "like") to NOT take my word for it. Take the 15 minutes I did and read the information available at the links above, and then draw your own conclusions (if you are unfamiliar with halachic and/or legal terminology some of the technical terms may be confusing to you, but it isn't very hard to get the basic gist of what's going on).

    Also, we must realize that social media can enable the quick and efficient mobilization of significant masses of people supporting a cause, and can be harnessed by common people just as well as (and sometimes more effectively than) rabbinic or other leaders. On the one hand, that can be a blessed phenomenon to empower people like Gital Dodelson who are otherwise powerless and vulnerable. But on the other hand, this same power can and is easily be misused by people with less righteous and holy agendas. I don't think we want halachic policy and Torah decisions in our community to be determined by whoever is able to muster the most likes on facebook (or whoever hires the most sophisticated media consultant).

    Social media is an important tool, but we must remember that as a halachic community, our rabbis are still our leaders and halachic decisions, particularly ones on such complex and sensitive matters, must be rendered by qualified poskim (halachic decisors/experts). Discussions of complex halachic matters can take place on the internet, but this has to maintain the high level of sophisticated discourse among Talmidei chachamim, and must not be reduced to blog posts and facebook statuses.

    We can – indeed must – make our voices heard. Just not too loud to drown out more substantive conversations.

Sign up for my newsletter

Sign up for my newsletter for periodic articles along with updates on new talks, classes and videos, and upcoming speaking engagements and public tours

Powered by