Someone We Don’t Know Needs Our Help; Can She Count on You?
(This article has been updated to remove the husband’s name as shortly after our rally, due to several efforts, the husband finally gave a get)
There’s a woman whom I have never met, and you have most likely never met, who desperately needs our help. Jill has been civilly divorced since October of 2009, but since then, her husband has refused to give her a get. For anyone who lived in the Boca community in 2007, this episode will no doubt being back memories of a similar painful situation.
Twelve years ago, the then-Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, contacted me to discuss a woman in Israel whose husband refused to give her a get. Rabbi Amar had sent the head of his Agunah department to meet with the husband, but despite several attempts to coordinate a meeting or even talk on the phone, the husband refused.
It wasn’t the first marriage for either of them, they had no children together, had only been married a short time, and there were no financial claims in either direction. The husband, a child psychiatrist living and practicing in Boca Raton, was simply refusing to give a get and wouldn’t provide a reason.
The husband was not observant and had no membership or participation in any Shul, depriving us of the ability to exert pressure through denying him honors or membership. Rabbi Amar felt that the only option left was to assert communal pressure by organizing a rally outside of his office building, and was asking our community to lead it.
We did just that, and the tremendous turnout from our community was an affirmation of our commitment to help a fellow Jew, even one we had never met and probably never would, but who was being unjustly chained and deprived of the ability to move forward with her life. While the rally drew the husband’s attention, it didn’t move him to agree to give the get. We responded by organizing several more rallies. Amazing men, women and children from around our community showed up daily outside his office building waving placards and chanting for this man to let his wife go free. Though we did this with great discomfort, hesitating over airing our “dirty laundry” in public and drawing potentially negative attention to Judaism and Torah laws over such a painful issue, we were determined to continue to show up until in fact he gave the get.
Our relentless attention on him in a place his colleagues and all passersby would see started to look like it was finally paying off. I got a call from his lawyer that he wanted to meet to see how we could end these rallies. I came to the meeting with a copy of a Kisvu U’Tnu, a Jewish legal document that would essentially allow him to simply sign his name in front of witnesses and set the giving of the get, which wouldn’t require his attendance or any further involvement, in motion. But unfortunately, while his lawyer said that his client was prepared to sign his name, he added a stipulation that he would only do so for a payment of $100,000.
Without hesitating, I told the lawyer that his client would not be getting one penny, that neither his wife nor our community would be extorted. We resumed the rallies outside his building and even held one outside his gated community (until the sprinklers “coincidentally” went on). After several more rallies, he and his lawyer were ready to meet again. This time, he shared with me that his wife had spoken negatively about him to his family members and had hurt his reputation. I asked him, if she wrote a letter taking responsibility for her negative depiction, apologizing and telling anyone who would read it that she was mistaken and he is a good guy, would he give the get? He said yes. I communicated this to the wife, and suggested that even if it wasn’t entirely sincere, signing such a letter would be a small price to pay for freedom. She agreed and wrote up a text.
I made a meeting with him and brought the letter, but without her signature on it. I put it in front of him and he seemed satisfied. I then put the Kisvu U’tnu in front of him and said, if you sign this paper, she will sign the other one. He paused, looked up at me and said, “Forget it, I will never ever give her a get.”
We resumed the rallies, and while they eventually dissipated, our commitment to free this woman didn’t. I called him each week to try to engage him and even visited him with my young adorable daughter, hoping to soften his heart, but to no avail.
One day, out of nowhere, I was contacted by a woman who explained that she was a daughter of this man and his first wife, and had been estranged from her father for many years. As a child, when her parents divorced, her father had given an ultimatum: If you go with your mother, you are dead to me and I never want to see you or speak to you again. For many years she sent him birthday cards and tried contacting him, but with no response. Occasionally, she would search for him on the internet yearning for some information and still desperate for the possibility that they would reconcile.
She had come across our rallies and efforts and reached out to offer to help in a unique and shrewd way. She told me she had a son, a grandson this man never met. She sent pictures of her with him and said I can offer on her behalf that if her father would sign the document, she and her son would come visit and be in his life. There couldn’t be a better incentive. For just his signature, he could touch his immortality by connecting with future generations.
An envelope with many pictures arrived in the mail and I went to go see him. I will never forget that meeting for the rest of my life. I put a picture of his grandson whom he had never met in front of him and asked, “Do you know who this is?” He looked at it closely and said, “I can’t place the boy, but he looks so familiar to me.” I gave it a moment and told him, “That is your grandson, he wants to meet you and get to know you. All your daughter asks is for you to sign this paper and they will come visit and spend time with you.” I spread the rest of the pictures of his daughter and grandson all over his desk. His hands began to shake and he started to sob uncontrollably. He asked how I knew them, and I explained the connection. He said he was willing to sign and collapsed in his chair gripping each picture and studying it carefully.
Then something extraordinary happened. Our rabbis tell us that a whenever a person acts inappropriately it is because they have been overwhelmed by a ruach shtus, a wave of insanity. The doctor took a few deep breaths, gathered himself, straightened his back, threw the pictures at me and said, “I will never sign your paper.” It was as if he became a different person, taken over by an evil alter ego. I told him, “Don’t you understand what you are giving up?” He said his daughter was already dead to him and he didn’t care if he never met his grandson, he would never authorize the get.
Almost as painful as letting the wife know she still didn’t have her get was informing the daughter that her father’s hatred continued to supersede his love for her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t surprised; she shared that this man also hadn’t spoken to any of his brothers for over thirty years and was estranged from everyone in the family. I came to know the daughter through our communications and even met in person when she visited Florida. She is kind, caring, and has a gentle and good soul. She is clearly an amazing mother to her son. Rather than pay the hatred forward, she has chosen to be the exact opposite of her father.
For several months I continued to try to reach out but eventually, he stopped taking my phone calls and wouldn’t let me in his office. My heart broke for his wife who could not resume her life for no reason other than his pure cruelty. They had no dispute, no disagreement, there was nothing to mediate or negotiate. He was the cruelest person I had ever met, a man bent on torturing another person for no reason other than some masochistic pleasure it gave him.
Several years passed and while I would often think about him and wonder what more we could have done, I had essentially moved on, though his wife could not. And then, last month, his daughter contacted me. Her father had passed away. He had never been back in touch with her, and left no will or instructions on what he wanted. She was coming to Florida to make arrangements. Through the Rabbanut, I let the wife in Israel know that she was finally free, able to remarry and move on with her life.
The news of his death impacted me much more than I would have ever anticipated. We had invested so much time, energy and emotion in this episode and in his recalcitrance. My whole life I have always believed in the basic goodness of all people. I had always held out hope that he would one day do the right and decent thing, that someone couldn’t be so cruel, so evil.
The daughter came and started to go through his belongings, trying to piece together the years they were estranged. His neighbors actually had kind things to say about him and had asked her if there could be a memorial service. She reached out to me and asked if I would officiate at his funeral.
This was one of the hardest questions I have been asked as a rabbi. On the one hand, my heart truly went out to his wonderful daughter, someone who had been through a lifetime of pain over her father and who was desperate for closure. But on the other hand, Jewish law demands that someone who is mesareiv l’din, who dies in contempt of Beis Din and in cheirem, forfeits his or her right to a honorable Jewish burial and to being mourned. How could I officiate and give honor to such a dishonorable person? With great pain over the whole situation, I declined, and consistent with her gracious personality, she totally understood.
Since his passing, I can’t stop reflecting on how to think about this man. Should we assume that people are inherently good and decent and if they act cruel or evil, it must be the result of some type of mental illness or because of the cruel way they were treated in their own life? Do we explain away the behavior with pity and disappointment, allowing them an honorable sendoff from this world and a place in the next one? Or, can people be so wicked and malevolent through the choices they have made that they have essentially forfeited their Godly soul and cut themselves off from honor in this world and immortality in the next?
Was this person evil or ill, wicked or sick, or could he have been both? Ohavei Hashem sin’u rah, those who love God are to hate evil. It was easy to hate his actions when he was alive and we could hope that he would yet make the choice to do the right thing. But now that he had died, did he cement his status as evil for all time, or could we find compassion and choose to focus on any virtues or merits he might still have, despite never coming around to do the right thing for his wife?
While we struggle with these difficult questions, one thing we can be certain in is our commitment to not letting something like this happen again. Now, our community has once again been called upon to help someone we have never met. Mr. F has refused to give his wife a get for nearly 13 years, and she cannot move forward with her life. He moved to Florida a year ago and now the Organization for the Resolution of Agunos (ORA) has asked us to help encourage him to give a get by rallying outside of his home. Yet again, this option is the last resort after countless efforts have taken place over an extended period of time to help him make the right choice to give the get.
Whether someone who doesn’t give his wife a get is an evil person who may still have done some good, or a good person who is perpetrating evil is up to Hashem alone to decide. In the olam ha’emes, in the world of truth, Hashem doesn’t need our help. But down here on Earth, as long as wickedness continues to be perpetrated, we have work to do.
*Like many rabbis in the Rabbinical Council of America, I refuse to officiate at weddings unless a Halachic Prenup is signed. The Beth Din of America reports that in every single dispute it has adjudicated between a couple that has irreconcilable differences and seeks divorce, if the Beth Din of America halachic prenuptial agreement was signed, the get was delivered. This has been enforced by American civil courts. To learn more, visit www.theprenup.org