Friday, September 11, 2015

Thoughts as I age on a Friday afternoon

At five she was the mysterious stranger, the subject of whispered stories, in her billowing robe. She was a hallowed visitor, a guest we cheered for and whose leaving we mourned. We sang her in and celebrated her company.

By ten, she was on the edges of my awareness, replaced by facts and figures, the myth fed children and unappreciated by anyone older. She was my parents’ friend who kept me apart from the rest of the world. When she arrived, the world took a breath, but that pause often did not last beyond dinner.

We were formally introduced when I turned 13 but by then, though I knew what she stood for, she was unwelcome in my world. She served as my ride to friends’ houses and was asked to drop me off a block away.

When I reached 14 she was the guest who imposed herself. She had to be fed and spoken to, and she was even a nice addition for a while, but then she grew tiresome and we all chose to sit, awkwardly alone. She was there but not acknowledged, the crazy aunt in the corner.

I hit college and she became the friend I wanted some of my friends to meet, on my own terms, of course. She was the story of a three year old, viewed with the assumed wisdom of an almost adult. She was a bargaining chip and a subject of bargains.

To a twenty-three year old she became the social director of my new family, the key to connecting and disconnecting. She was welcomed with insincere open arms and she showed up, asking nothing in return.

When I was 26 she became my drinking buddy, as she was more than happy to be around, in whatever capacity I would have her. I started to see her as a relief, but only slightly so. My life became hectic and she wanted me for herself, and was jealous of the outside world.

As a thirty-five year old, she was back to being the enrobed queen as I tried to teach my children how they have to cherish the time we spend together. I wanted them to see her as a beautiful opportunity, before she became a burden.

I am now forty-six and she is now my old friend, anticipated as she approaches, comfortable in our presence, and sorely missed when she leaves. She is that mystery again, but this time even willingly to me, as she ushers in an oasis of calm and love, and I try to explain to others that she is no burden and, given the chance, I would have her back more often than her schedule allows. I don’t mourn her leaving, but I think about her through the week.

She has kept me, as I have tried to guard her. She has grown in my eyes as I have grown into her. I cherish her in a way I never have before.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Agunah (non)solution -- my uninformed thoughts

OK, first off, I am no one. This is not a case of false modesty – I really am not versed in the intricacies of the laws and the rabbis involved all have my esteem and respect for their dedication to Judaism and their levels of knowledge and commitment. I have studied a little and have only a half knowledge so I write what I do with many caveats. But I just read an article about a current sub-crisis within the agunah crisis and I am moved to write some thoughts down.

An agunah, you will recall, is a woman whose husband has not given her a Jewish bill of divorce (“get”) so she cannot remarry, but who, for whatever reason, is not functionally married in any sense. Her husband might have divorced her civilly but is holding back the get for a reason, or her husband might be chaining her within the marriage and refusing to issue a get simply because he refuses to allow the marriage to dissolve. The chained woman is effectively powerless.

There have been, over hundreds of years, a variety of approaches trying to find a way to free these women, to allow them to move on with their lives, remarry and find a measure of happiness (which is especially acute when the husband moves ahead to remarry as he, under Jewish law, is not forbidden from taking 2 wives while the agunah would be biblically proscribed from remarrying and having 2 husbands). The husband cannot be forced to issue a get while a woman cannot stop him when he decides to serve her with one. The inequity is palpable and sickening.

In the past, some rabbis have resorted to force, trying to “convince” the husband to issue the get through the use of a tire iron (the Jewish court has precedent for encouraging a change of heart by means of force). Some have issued writs of excommunication, hoping that communal excision, pressure, and embarrassment will convince the husband to change his mind. Some demand pre-nups now so as to avoid later problems. Books have been written exploring the history, options, and implications of the problem. To date, there is no definitive solution.

Apparently, and according to an article in The Jewish Week ( a relatively new religious court has found a way, in many recent cases, to retroactively invalidate the entire marriage, thus obviating the need for a get to dissolve the union. In one case, they ruled the marriage non-existent based “on the Talmudic principle that the woman never would have married her husband if she had known he would act in an abusive fashion during the marriage.” This is an element in the judgment of a kiddushei ta’ut, a mistaken marriage. This approach has been tried before and is subject to much argument (see for one viewpoint and sources). This approach and the concerns surrounding it are not my focus though.

In other cases, “the court reviewed videos of the couples' wedding and found one or both witnesses invalid, thereby annulling the marriage.” In response to their actions, Rabbi H. Schachter wrote a letter in which he said, “great scholars of the generation” should be the ones making such sensitive judgments. I have a series of questions here and it is those questions and their answers which will give me a better sense of my feelings about this brouhaha.

Until then, my pronouncement is that all involved in this are acting like righteous fools. There I said it. Feel free to excommunicate me.

While you are preparing the paperwork, here are my questions:

1. (for Rabbi Schachter) is your concern simply WHO made this pronouncement? Or is there an argument to be made against WHAT was decided?

1a. If there is something wrong with the method employed to free these woman, what is it?

1b. If there is nothing wrong, could YOUR beit din simply rule identically so, at least in the short run, the limbo these women are now in would be removed?

1c. If the historic position is that we find any leniency to free an agunah, does it really matter who finds the leniency or even if it is a leniency that another court might not have thought of? If one has sources, are there leniencies which are “too lenient”?

1d. How does one attain the status which allows it to make pronouncements? Who judges that a gadol is a gadol? I am nobody and to me, Rabbi Krauss certainly has the kind of learning which prepares him to present this option. What is the yardstick which would prove otherwise? Couldn’t someone look at the RCA or any other organized beit din and say it is not equipped to judge? Is this any different from the Israeli rabbinate proclaiming that American rabbis cannot convert people, more about cementing a base of power and monopoly than judging the quality of the ruling?

1e. If the ruling of the IBD is based in halachic sources then what does their personal stature have to do with anything? Are the sources wrong?

2. (For R. Krauss) How does one find a witness invalid through a video? What does one look for which can effect such a ruling?

2a. Does this create any change in the status of the children had in what is now retroactively “not wedlock”? Though they are not mamzerim technically, could their being born not in a context of a valid kiddushin have any halachic or social implications? Does it affect, halachically, the judgment of the behavior of the couple who have been living together inappropriately, for years?

2b. Could this decision be used in a civil court to tip the balance in any divorce as it acts as a judicial finding that the marriage never existed so one could argue that the civil marriage is affected and marital events and proceeds must now be reconsidered, or bolster one side’s claim that the entire marriage was under false pretenses?

2c. Wouldn’t this be precedent for a husband to retroactively invalidate a marriage to avoid the RCA pre-nup?

2d. Couldn’t this serve as a precedent for an unscrupulous wife to invalidate her marriage and jump into a marriage to someone else at any turn (even a Kohen, as she would not be a divorcee)? Even repeatedly?

2e. Wouldn’t finding witnesses invalid in one wedding require that any other couple who later had either of the same people as witnesses get remarried with new witnesses because that one witness has been ruled invalid? Will the IBD be notifying other couples that they are not halachically married?

2f. If there is no monopoly or required central authority working to solve this in an approved fashion, then why would there have to be a central standard by which to judge witness validity? Any ad hoc beit din could go around invalidating marriages, even against the will of both husband and wife. If we allow the destruction of the underpinning of the marriage contract, then could have a larger crisis on our hands and destroy the faith we have in any halachic marriage, let alone any situation which requires witnesses.

Look, I hate the agunah crisis. I hope that a way is found within the bounds of Jewish law to make this whole thing go away. Refusing to give a Get is terrible. Exploiting religious law to torture another human being is inexcusable. That being said, I also understand (not like, not endorse, but certainly understand) how in some cases, the issue of a Get as leverage is the only way a husband can negotiate a fair settlement in civil court.

I don’t have answers, and maybe this solution isn’t an answer. Maybe it is. But the proper response, Rabbi Schachter, isn’t to shoot the messenger without considering the message, giving it its due and being transparent with the people about why it isn't the solution. And in the same way, the proper approach, Rabbi Krauss, isn’t to introduce more problems halachically by trying to exploit a potential leniency, especially without employing the same transparency of process so any and all concerns can be raised and a new process be properly vetted before it is relied on.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Just the way you aren't

Last night, the wife and I found ourselves with some alone time. One kid is abroad, the other, asleep and we weren’t quite ready for bed. So we googled everyone we knew in college, looked for them on Facebook, and judged their lives. Spoiler alert – we’re still the awesomest.

We discovered a few interesting things – first, many of our school mates are not on Facebook, or have not put any real detail on Facebook. I find this distressing. People have the responsibility to put their lives out there so that I can find them and know what they are up to without having to have any real or meaningful interaction during which I feign interest.

Next, people have chosen life paths which don’t all fall in line with what I think they were slated to become and do. The choices to have children or not, where people settled, and their careers often diverged from my personal expectations. This is unacceptable. Another thing: some of you really made quite a life for yourselves. It is admirable to see some of you rise to such heights. Why you have not dragged me up is beyond me, but you still have that opportunity.

Facebook, various alumni resources and web searches, plus a little deductive reasoning make it much easier to track down names from the past and catch up without having to catch up. They also make it much easier to obsess, stalk, judge and feel depressed, all from the privacy of my home.

So, in sum, I feel pretty good about my life and am proud of some of you. Others, I am still waiting for you to blossom and become what I have decided you are meant to be. And for those of you who aren’t putting all your details out there for my perusal, jump to it. I would prefer to decide I know your life based on snippets of information which you have selected in order to force people to think what you want them to think, rather than do so based on no facts. I mean, I’m more than willing to create a complete fiction and judge you based on it, but having just enough info to come to the most damning conclusions would be most helpful.