Tamar Epstein, the prominent “chained woman” whose right to remarry under traditional Jewish law was long stymied, may have finally found two Orthodox rabbis willing to help her wed again. But her fate in the broader Jewish community — and the fate of any children she may have — is anything but ensured.
Epstein, who has conducted a high-profile, years-long campaign to force her recalcitrant ex-husband, a Capitol Hill congressional aide, to grant her a religious bill of divorce, appeared recently to have found a way around her dilemma. Traditional Jewish law bars a woman from remarrying without first receiving such a bill of divorce, even if, like Epstein, she is already civilly divorced. But on September 24, Epstein was wed to her new husband by a prominent rabbi in Memphis, Tennessee, after an unnamed Philadelphia Orthodox rabbi used a rare procedure to annul Epstein’s earlier marriage.
This seemed to end the 33-year-old’s status as an agunah, as such women are known in Hebrew — a term commonly translated into English as “chained woman.” But this was not necessarily the happy ending that many had hoped she would get.
The decision to allow Epstein to remarry ignited a firestorm within the Orthodox community. Opponents of the decision are making it clear that Epstein and any future children she may have will not find acceptance in the Orthodox community of which she considers herself a part.
“The woman is considered married for all purposes and is forbidden for any other man until a religious court rules otherwise,” Rabbi Aharon Feldman, head of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College, wrote in an open letter he addressed to fellow rabbis and religious leaders. “In the meanwhile, she must leave her second ‘husband,’ and if she has children, they will be considered bastards until relieved by a religious court.” Under traditional Jewish law, children classified as bastards — mamzerim in Hebrew — are not allowed to marry other Jews who are born to women considered to be legitimately married.
Epstein has long become the face of the struggle of chained women in America. A resident of Silver Spring, Maryland, she married Aharon Friedman in 2006; the couple’s only daughter was born a year later. In 2010 she and Friedman decided to separate; they got a civil divorce, but Friedman refused to provide his wife with a get, a religious bill of divorce, which is required under Jewish law to release the wife from the marriage. Epstein thus became an agunah, unable to remarry until her estranged husband grants her the religious divorce.
Epstein’s plight touched the hearts of many in the metropolitan Washington Orthodox community and led to a series of articles condemning Friedman. Her sympathizers held routine demonstrations outside Capitol Hill, where Friedman works as a congressional staff aide to Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican. Several area Orthodox synagogues decided to boycott Friedman, not allowing him to pray with the congregation until he signs his wife’s get. But despite the protests, Friedman has refused to grant the religious divorce, reportedly in an attempt to use the refusal to leverage his request for changing visiting rights of the couple’s daughter in his favor.
Some rabbinical authorities view the breakthrough that allowed Epstein to remarry as a creative solution. But others condemn it as a violation of Jewish law.
The breakthrough came earlier this fall, when a rabbinic authority in Philadelphia issued a heter, or permission, that annulled Epstein’s marriage based on the claim that Friedman was mentally ill at the time the couple married. The identity of this rabbinical authority was not disclosed, but according to several ultra-Orthodox websites it was likely to have been Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, head of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia. In the past, Kamenetsky has worked to resolve Epstein’s situation.
Although the unnamed rabbinical authority was not provided with any professional mental evaluation of Friedman’s condition, the rabbi ruled that had Epstein known of these mental issues in advance, she would never have married Friedman, and therefore the marriage is annulled and Epstein is free to remarry. Annulment, while existing in traditional Jewish law, is a very rare procedure, and according to a source in the Orthodox community, it has never been used in modern times.
Epstein’s marriage to Adam Fleischer in a traditional Jewish ceremony in Memphis was officiated by Rabbi Nota Greenblatt, who is the head of the city’s Orthodox umbrella organization, Vaad Hakehilloth, and is a well known halachic authority.
The controversy that ensued centered on interpretation of religious law rather than on Epstein’s right to be released from her husband. Even those critical of the unusual halachic procedure were, for the most part, sympathetic to Epstein’s plight. They reiterated their call for Friedman to issue a religious divorce.
All parties involved declined to discuss the permission given to Epstein for her subsequent marriage, stating it was a private, personal issue.
Advocates of women’s rights under Jewish law were also cautious about the broader implications of this ruling. “There is a concept of annulment in Jewish law that can be applied in some cases, but I am neutral on this topic,” said Rabbi Jeremy Stern, executive director of the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, an organization established to help chained women be set free. Stern said his group focuses on the need for divorced men to provide their ex-wives with a get.
Many rabbis argue that Epstein’s resort to what they view as a questionable procedure is inconsistent with Jewish law and will do nothing to solve the problem.
“It is clear at this point that Tamar Epstein is still married to Aharon Friedman — because the heter she received to remarry is a sad joke based on a clear corruption and misuse of halachic principles,” wrote Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn, one of the ultra-Orthodox community’s leading voices on issues of marriage.
Eidensohn added stern words of warning regarding the status of her future children, making clear that her road forward will be anything but easy. “Her marriage to Adam Fleischer is invalid,” he wrote. “She is committing adultery, and future kids are mamzerim.”
Furthermore, rabbis who oppose the move are now working to sign up as many rabbinical voices as possible in the Orthodox community, to ensure that, in the future, the community does not accept Epstein’s annulment and the use of the practice.
“Until now, there were a few attempts” by rabbis to annul marriages, Feldman wrote. But they changed nothing, “because the protest of our rabbis silenced them.” But this time is different. “Now, this permission is coming from an important and significant rabbi, and if we do not protest, our pact will come apart,” Feldman warned.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.