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Ancient Tale of Mistaken Identity Sheds Light on Divorce Dilemma

Bringing a glossy magazine to synagogue would usually register as a religious faux pas, especially if it’s the flashy food issue of New York magazine and the holiday in question is the gloomy fast day of Tisha B’Av.

This year, however, worshippers — and rabbis — would do well to come to services armed with copies of the magazine’s July 28 issue. If it makes things easier, congregants can rip out the dozens of pages with tempting culinary photographs and leave them at home; the only relevant section is Craig Horowitz’s article, “An Un-Orthodox Divorce.”

While chronicling the ugly breakup of a chasidic couple in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, the article paints a disturbing picture of rabbis accepting bribes and launching a campaign to humiliate one woman for leaving her husband. The piece serves as a powerful reminder of the indignities and inequities faced by Jewish women operating in an Orthodox legal system that requires them to secure the approval of their husbands before obtaining a divorce.

The connection may at first seem tenuous, between a problem facing today’s Orthodox society and the observance of a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Second Temple and several other ancient Jewish tragedies. But a review of Talmudic literature on the holiday suggests a powerful link — and underscores the failure of contemporary rabbis to eliminate the injustices faced by women, known as agunot, whose husbands refuse to grant them a writ of religious divorce.

According to the best-known explanation of Tisha B’Av, the Jews were infected with sinat chinam, internecine feuding that led to the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Roman Empire and the start of a millennia-long Exile. But the Talmud offers a more intriguing account, focused on an ancient tale of mistaken identity.

The Talmud tells of a man who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza; in attempting to invite Kamtza to a party, the man accidentally invited Bar Kamtza. When Bar Kamtza arrived, the host ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza, embarrassed, first offered to pay for himself, then half of the party and, finally, the whole affair. But the man’s answer was no, and a humiliated Bar Kamtza left, silently swearing to take revenge — not against the host, but the generation’s most prominent rabbis, who all sat by and said nothing as the exchange took place.

Fueled by his embarrassment, Bar Kamtza set out to convince the Roman emperor that the Jews were rebelling against him. The test, Bar Kamtza told the ruler, would be to send the rabbis a sacrifice; if they rejected it, their betrayal would be clear. On the way to the Temple, Bar Kamtza blemished the animal, making it unfit for ritual use.

Initially, the rabbis wisely opted to accept the tainted gift. But then one rabbi, Zechariah ben Avkulos, objected, arguing that people would mistakenly assume that sacrificing a blemished animal was ritually permissible. Next, the exacting ben Avkulos rejected the rabbis’ plan to murder Bar Kamtza before he could inform the emperor — on the grounds that people would erroneously think that blemishing an animal was a capital crime.

In the end, according to the Talmud, the sacrifice was refused, the Temple destroyed and the Jewish people exiled — all because of the “humility” of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos and the willingness of the rabbis to demonstrate more concern for ritual regulations than for the dignity of Bar Kamtza.

Several compelling lessons emerge from the story, all of which seem to be ignored by contemporary rabbis as they deal with the plight of agunot. On the most basic level, the story underlines the need for rabbis to speak out in the face of public humiliation and abuse of power; had they done so in the case of Bar Kamtza, historic devastation could have been avoided. Yet, today, rabbis generally maintain public silence when faced with repeated cases of male congregants holding their wives hostage either as a tactical edge in civil divorce hearings or out of spite. Centuries ago, Jewish societies would blackball or flog a man until he granted his wife a divorce decree; today, recalcitrant husbands and their defenders rarely pay a social, economic or physical price for their behavior. Within the Modern Orthodox world, a supposedly progressive ethos produces an aversion to such drastic punishments but stops short of fundamentally altering the sexism built into the system.

The unwillingness to speak out in individual cases is compounded by the greater failure of most rabbis to tackle head on the fundamental flaw in their legal system.

One prominent Orthodox rabbi, Emanuel Rackman, has attempted in recent years to alter the legal equation by establishing a rabbinical court that takes unilateral steps to free agunot from their marital prisons. Rackman’s court employs a mix of legal maneuvers, all grounded to some degree in ancient rabbinic law. Yet, when he established the body, his colleagues rushed to condemn his efforts, meticulously identifying the most minute technical violations in his approach while all but ignoring the good.

Since Rackman launched the groundbreaking court, the Modern Orthodox establishment has enacted several praiseworthy reforms of its own. Yet all these steps fall woefully short of removing the fate of a woman from the hands of her husband. On this front, like the rabbis in the Bar Kamtza story, Rackman’s colleagues claim that in the face of a great theological dilemma with real-world implications, their hands are tied by centuries of tradition and legal strictures.

At first glance, as an excuse for tampering with prevailing rabbinic law, the destruction of a handful of lives may not rank with the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of Jews from their homeland. But, as the Talmud teaches, a tragedy as great as that commemorated on Tisha B’Av can spring from the humiliation of just one person if the community’s leaders fail to speak out.

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