Is This Rabbi A Feminist Hero Or A Sadistic Male Torturer?

A trial began today in Trenton, New Jersey, for Orthodox Jewish rabbi Mendel Epstein, who has been charged with attempted kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping, after being arrested for kidnapping and torturing Jewish men who refused to grant their wives divorces.

Epstein was indicted last May, though as the Village Voice reported back in 2013, rumors of his kidnapping and abuse have spanned back as far as the mid-1980s. The story goes as such: Orthodox Jewish women would come to Epstein when their husbands refused to give them a “get,” a Jewish document dissolving their marriage. Reasons for refusing the get were often varied, but the basic principle and end result was the same: any Jewish woman who is not granted a get cannot dissolve her marriage under Jewish law. As the Village Voice further explains:

The rule can be traced to the biblical Book of Deuteronomy, and its sway remains stifling: Without a get, a woman who remarries is considered adulterous. Any children fathered by her new husband are illegitimate under Orthodox law and prohibited from marrying within the faith.

The patriarchal nature of Orthodox marriages can lead to particularly contentious divorces. With custody and alimony at stake, a man may be tempted to use his biblically granted leverage in negotiations: No get until his terms are met. Though the practice is frowned upon, it is so pervasive that there’s a word for a woman whose husband refuses to grant a get: an agunah, which translates from Hebrew as “chained woman.”

But while Epstein is being propped up as a champion of women’s rights in an ever-patriarchal orthodox society, prosecutors are painting the alleged-repeat offender as a sadistic criminal who didn’t just scare the men he kidnapped, but brutalized and tortured him. As the AP reported, prosecutors alleged that Epstein would use cattle prods, handcuffs, and a variety of mixed-martial art style beatings on the alleged victims. A sting set up by the FBI in 2013 not only captured Epstein on tape talking about how the kidnapping process works, but also what the “kidnap team” brought with them. Per the AP, Epstein was recording telling undercover FBI agent, “If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move, you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know,” regarding the use of electric cattle prods, before telling them that the kidnapping itself would cost at least $50,000. Once the staged kidnapping was set up, a designated kidnap team showed up with surgical blades, screwdrivers and rope.

But is Epstein a psychosadist or a champion of women’s rights with misguided methods? The Post spoke to Rabbi Mark Dratch, who serves as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, who clarified that while he didn’t condone Epstein’s use of violence, he recognized the societal pressures within the Orthodox Jewish community. As Dratch claims, in Israel, husbands who refuse to grant their wives gets can be imprisoned, but as no such laws exist in the United States, communities often have to resort to societal pressure.

As Rivky Stein, a Jewish woman who is uninvolved in Epstein’s case but currently is not being granted a divorce by her Orthodox Jewish husband, put it, “Do I condone it? No. But I understand these women,” she said. “I understand their desperation. I understand their pain.”

[Village Voice]

[AP]

[New York Post]

[Image via “Women Unchained]