Why $60K and Torture Beats Changing Divorce Law

Two Orthodox Rabbis and eight of their affiliates were arrested last week in New Jersey and New York. Their crime? They intended to kidnap an Orthodox man who refused to grant his wife a divorce, torture him, and obtain a get – basically, a statement from the man that approves the divorce. For this they were reportedly paid at least $60,000 (though in fairness $10K was used to pass a rabbinical decree permitting violence against the husband).

And Rabbi Epstein’s prolific career (he had at least two dozen victims, probably more) raises a profound question about religion. Namely: why is it easier to subvert and disrespect religious rules than simply change them? Why is it easier to kidnap and torture husbands into granting a divorce than to simply institute egalitarian divorce?

Perhaps it’s because changing divorce laws could theoretically challenge other patriarchal Orthodox theological principles. Additionally, change always threatens the very premise of many conservative religious groups: that they are manifestations of original, true religion, distinct from the turbulent, sinful modern world. Adopting the divorce laws of the outside world could potentially undermine the very legitimacy of the community. Because of this, it’s often easier to find work-arounds to rules and traditions than to change them – even if the work-around is violent or bizarre.

In this environment, updating divorce laws is practically necessary but politically and ideologically impossible. Pressuring men into granting divorces becomes an option that does not challenge the legitimacy of Orthodox Judaism while allowing women in exceptional circumstances (and, critically, with financial resources) to get a divorce. 

Which is why the explanation that Epstein simply did this “for the money”, as the prosecutor said, misses the point. Epstein did something crucial: he made a religious rule that wasn’t working function. Sure, he profited personally out of it. Sure, his method was repugnant. But he also helped those suffering under the Orthodox Jewish divorce system. He made the system work. That, you might argue, is itself a religious duty.

Of course, Orthodox Judaism isn’t the only religion with “work-arounds”; all communities, religious and non-, have rules that no longer function but, for whatever reason, haven’t been changed. These rules thus require complex solutions to simultaneously maintain and subvert the rule.

The Epstein case is obviously an extreme example, but I’d love to hear about others in the comments – maybe they’ll inspire a list of the most interesting ones in the near future. (But please, let’s not talk about the “Mormon Soak”)