New York – In a recent interview, Rabbi Mendel Epstein, a dayan, and a to’ein of over thirty years, holds nothing back in expressing his “disgust” with the current system that, too often, he says, results in women finding themselves in “unbearably difficult situations due to incorrect hashkafos and advice that they have received and therefore come to blame the Torah and rabbanim for their plight.”
In the 5 TOWNS JEWISH TIMES (http://bit.ly/16Fcz3j) interview, Rabbi Epstein says he has “seen enough suffering” throughout his thirty years of service and the over 2,000 divorce cases he has handled.
So much so, that he has drafted a “Bill of Rights of a Jewish Wife” which he released last week.
Among the proclamations listed in the Rabbi’s Bill of Rights are:
(1) A wife must be treated with respect and not be abused. A woman in an abusive relationship has a right to seek a get.
(2) She is entitled to be supported by her husband. Read the kesubah.
(3) A husband is obligated to honor and respect his wife’s parents.
(4) She is entitled to a normal conjugal relationship.
In speaking on the “proliferation” of divorces within the frum community, Epstein says that the inordinate number of divorces comes about as a result of infidelity in marriages, and that the dalliances leading to infidelity very often “start in shul” and with people coming and going freely in and out of each other’s homes.
Epstein puts no age restrictions on divorce, and says that it doesn’t matter whether couples are married for a “few months” or a “few decades.”
In opening the interview, Epstein is asked why he chose this time to come forward and speak out.
Epstein says it is the “proliferation of the divorces” within the community that brought him forward.
“There are so many women left in limbo by the process,” Epstein says, “There is hardly a family in the community that is not dealing with divorce or a yeshiva that does not have one or two children at minimum in every class whose parents are either in the process or already divorced.”
Epstein says it is the “impact,” too, on women and children involved in divorces, that is negatively affecting their views on the rabbanim in general.
“Don’t minimize the impact this is having on frum homes, as mothers begin to view trying to live according to a halachic or Torah lifestyle as being a prime cause of their problems,” Rabbi Epstein says, adding that this attitude can easily trickle down to the children, where it can emotionally resonate for years.
“It’s not the Torah and it’s not the rabbis that are at fault or responsible for all the misery, heartache, and broken marriages and families out there,” Epstein says, noting that more than anything else it is long-held false ideals and misguided hashkafos that have turned the way our community looks at these situations upside down.
Rabbi Epstein insists that he is not functioning in a vacuum, claiming as evidence a number of prominent rabbinical figures who concur with his outspoken approach, agree with his formulation, and who have encouraged him to publicize his points—among them; Rabbi Peretz Steinberg of the Queens Vaad HaRabonim, Rabbi Hershel Kurzrock of the Rabbinical Alliance/Igud HaRabbonim, and Rabbi Moshe Bergman, a prominent rav dealing with gittin in Brooklyn.
In stressing both his point and his frustration, Rabbi Epstein relates a current case involving a woman who has been waiting over three years for her get.
Rabbi Epstein says he called the rabbi holding up the get, inquiring as to why it was taking so long. He said that there was already evidentiary proof that the husband was no longer observing Shabbos and was also already dating other women, so why the delay? Rabbi Epstein says that the rabbi told him that he requires a therapist as a third party to independently verify that the marriage could not be repaired or saved.
“There is no basis in halachah for this opinion,” Rabbi Epstein says, adding that “all this ignorant approach does is prolong the process and increase the suffering, usually on the woman’s side of the equation.”
Epstein explains that, while the goal of many of the rabbis involved in these situations is to keep the couple together and try to keep the family unit intact, it may look like the best situation from the outside, but internally it can be doing more damage than anyone can imagine.
“There are a lot of stupid women staying with their husbands,” the Rabbi says, “even though by right the marriage is over and for everyone’s good they should be out of there.”
Epstein says that, aside from infidelity and disloyalty in a marriage, the second-most-common reason for divorce seems to be economic pressures.
Two of Epstein’s ten point Bill of Rights are dedicated to these matters.
Rabbi Epstein states clearly that “a woman is entitled to be supported by her husband,” and that “this is clearly and unequivocally defined in no uncertain terms in the kesubah that is the documented centerpiece of every Jewish marriage.”
Rabbi Epstein chides, “The money that she brings in before the wedding should be used to enhancing the living standard of the couple, not for the husband to waste on buying electronics or other gadgetry.”
Elaborating further, Epstein says, “There is a wild idea out there that a kosher woman has to put up with abuse because that’s the way Hashem wants it. What father would want their daughter to suffer in that way?”
On the system, Rabbi Epstein explains, “Another great error that women often make is that they run to court instead of the beis din. No court can grant her a get,” while adding that it is a mistake to run to retain a divorce attorney that unfortunately all too often mislead their clients and take them through a wild and very costly ride through the judicial system—only to find that after a few years they have accomplished nothing except the spending of tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. “The proper beis din is relatively quick, fairly cheap, and knows where the cash is hidden.”
Epstein confessed that there are, however, occasions where going to court first is beneficial, especially when there is a particularly obdurate and uncooperative husband involved. Unlike beis din, the court can demand and compel the husband to disclose all his personal financial information, which a Jewish court does not have the full legal ability to do. Sometimes this process will be convincing enough for a man to voluntarily give his wife the get.
When asked to comment on the campaign that is encouraging families to allow their young men to marry earlier than has been the norm in an attempt to address the so-called “shidduch crisis,” Rabbi Epstein says simply, “It’s a terrible idea and it will increase the divorce rate.”
Rabbi Epstein is also asked whether verbal abuse, or being spoken to harshly or with a lack of respect for either party in a marriage is grounds for divorce.
The Rabbi answers, “Cursing her or her family could be grounds for a get. Or to quote Chazal, ‘Ein adam dor im nachash bekefifa achas’—you can’t live with a snake.”
Finally, when asked why he believes there is so much dysfunction to which he attributes failed marriages and the inordinate number of divorces in the community, Rabbi Epstein for the most part points toward the young (and not-so-young) men.
“The main reason many young people are just not ready for marriage or parenthood is that many of the boys are just sitting in yeshiva. They are not tested or evaluated and all too many do not even make it to morning minyan,” says the Rabbi, before adding that that he thinks that this idea of sending boys to out-of-town yeshiva at such a young age is finally backfiring on families and the community.
“We send our kids to dormitories, and during his formative years the child hardly ever sees what a normal husband–wife relationship looks like.” says Epstein, while noting that “too many children grow up thinking that their parents are little more than ATMs.”
“So when Mr. Spoiled marries Ms. Spoiled, why are we shocked that they cannot make a marriage work or successfully assume the responsibilities of parenthood?” Epstein questions.
In closing, Rabbi Mendel Epstein says that he has “observed this sad reality playing itself out and most community leaders just looking away as the problems that plague our people and wreak havoc are spiraling out of control. He says that it needs to be said not to G‑d forbid embarrass anyone, but rather to put the issues out there so that we can tackle them, take them on, and try to figure out some solutions.”