Posted on the Web site of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance is a prayer composed by Rabbi Mordecai Tendler on behalf of agunot — Jewish women who are unable to obtain a religious divorce decree from their husbands.
Tendler’s touching supplication, asking God to “deliver all the agunot from the bonds of their plight,” aptly reflects the close relationship between him and the feminist alliance, believed to be the only multi-issue Orthodox women’s advocacy group in America.
The prayer was still on JOFA’s Web site this week, several days after Tendler was expelled from the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbis union. The expulsion followed an eight-month investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Tendler made by at least seven Orthodox women.
Agunah advocates say Tendler was one of the only rabbis in America they could count on to help women trapped in broken marriages; his expulsion, they say, is devastating to their cause.
Some stunned feminists are still not ready to criticize him, despite the RCA’s finding that he engaged “in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi” and refused to cooperate with the organization’s investigation.
“If agunah activists and women’s organizations are not in a great rush to start throwing stones at him, it is because he has been one of the very very few people who did the right and courageous thing and was honest enough to do what all the rabbis should be doing, and he did it for no monetary gain and no glory,” said Rivka Haut, a caseworker for the agunah advocacy group organization Get Equal Treatment.
But some critics say that the feminist activists betrayed their mission to protect women by keeping silent about Tendler — some even continuing to refer agunot to him — while rumors circulated about his alleged sexual harassment in recent years.
Several RCA members, in interviews with the Forward, noted that while rabbis are often accused of being insensitive or indifferent to the plight of sexual harassment victims, in this case it was agunah advocates who generally ignored the allegations voiced by women.
When the RCA investigation became public in August 2004 JOFA founder and leading Orthodox feminist Blu Greenberg praised Tendler in an interview with the Forward. “He is very sensitive to the agunah’s plight,” she said. “He spares no effort, and does an intensive investigation of each case. I hope and pray that the allegations against him will be found in a court to be not true.”
In the summer of 2004, a private debate raged among Orthodox feminists on the Women’s Tefillah Network, a closed discussion group on the Internet, about how to approach the allegations against Tendler. Some feminist leaders recommended staying silent because of Tendler’s past cooperation, according to several postings seen by the Forward.
Some agunah advocates said they quietly stopped referring women to Tendler this past summer, after it became public that RCA was investigating him. But they did not alert the wider Orthodox community of the situation.
“The thinking was, ‘Why should we be the ones to jump to conclusions, especially since he’s been so helpful to women?’” said one Orthodox feminist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
JOFA president Carol Newman told the Forward this week that when the allegations against Tendler became public, “we did nothing except wait to hear what the outcome would be.” Newman, who called Tendler a hero, declined to say how many women JOFA sent to him or whether the group ever stopped referring people to him.
Susan Aranoff, co-founder and director of Agunah International, Inc., another women’s advocacy group, criticized Orthodox feminists who defended Tendler while ignoring the women who came forward in the face of heavy intimidation. She disputed the notion that Tendler’s past help was a rationale for silence.
“People in positions of power who use that as an opportunity to abuse others always have positive accomplishments to their credit” Aranoff said. “That’s what makes them so dangerous, because it gives them access to potential victims.”
Aranoff also censured colleagues for keeping silent when they first learned of the accusations against Tendler.
“Anybody who is an agunah activist who had known before it became public had a responsibility to inform other activists so that we would know to warn those who might go to Tendler that these allegations have been made,” she said.
All the activists interviewed for this article said that they did not know Tendler’s accusers and they declined to speculate about the veracity of their charges.
Meanwhile Haut criticized the RCA’s handling of the case. “The fact that the RCA is being so ambiguous [about the expulsion] is very harmful,” she said. “They are leaving the door open for people to maintain his innocence and women will continue to go to him.”
In fact, she said, she knows of one agunah “who still goes to him because he is the only rabbi she will trust.”