A New Jersey rabbi spent his second day on trial for allegedly charging undercover FBI agents to kidnap a man and force him to give his wife a religious divorce, called a “get,” according to ABC News. Attorneys for Rabbi Mendel Epstein characterize him as a “defender of women’s rights.”
Some men in Orthodox Jewish circles refuse to give their wives “gets,” and some wives asking for “gets” have been physically abused. A woman who cannot obtain a “get” is called an “agunah.”
The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot explains the normal process when an Orthodox Jewish man who refuses to give his wife a “get”: “A seruv is a document that indicates that a party has refused to comply with a Jewish court and is held in contempt of court. In the Jewish divorce process, if a husband or wife disobeys the ruling of a Jewish court and refuses to either issue or receive a get, a seruv is issued against them. Jewish communities traditionally ban recalcitrant husbands who refuse to comply with a reputable Jewish court from entering the synagogue for public prayer and receiving Torah and other community honors.” The organization explains, “ORA’s dedicated caseworkers formulate and spearhead an individualized action plan for each agunah by facilitating communication between all parties, navigating Jewish and civil court systems, trailblazing new approaches to case resolution, and rallying public support. When necessary, we apply social, communal, financial and legal pressure to procure a get.”
But Epstein, 69, his son David, and two other rabbis named in the case as Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler, are facing federal charges of conspiracy to kidnap and kidnapping, as they threatened to go much farther than the usual process. According to ABC News, prosecutors showed a video in which Epstein said of the men who would not grant their wives divorces, “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.”
FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman claimed, “Mendel Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of ‘tough guys’ who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags on the heads of husbands.”
Defense lawyer Robert Stahl said according to ABC News, that during his opening statements that “the process is a legitimate divorce. It’s not a criminal conspiracy.” He quoted ancient Jewish texts that wrote that using physical coercion to convince men to grant their wives divorces was acceptable.
U.S District Judge Freda Wolfson warned Epstein’s lawyers that they were essentially asking the jury to ignore federal criminal law.