By the company he keeps
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 11, 2000
In his recent guest turn on this page ("The Great Aguna Debacle, Part II," June 16), Moshe Morgenstern, head of the "annulment beit din," described how he refused to give his own wife a get (bill of divorce) for seven years and the guilt feelings he suffered as a consequence.
Had Morgenstern traveled around the world using his own experience to convince recalcitrant husbands to give their wives gittin, he would have performed a valuable service. Instead he searched for halachic means to "free" women like his first wife.
Those methods, however, have been summarily rejected by every Orthodox rabbinic group in the world. Guilt may spur many positive actions, but it is a poor basis for halachic decision-making, which requires, above all, objectivity.
Morgenstern's piece was a reply to an earlier column of mine ("The Cure for Jewish Divorce - No More Marriage," June 2) in which I summarized the major halachic arguments advanced by leading halachic authorities against the methods of his "annulment beit din." Morgenstern had not one word to say about any of these arguments beyond asserting that he knows 30 to 40 ways to free women from unwanted husbands. No reputable halachic scholar has found even one way in most cases, and he has 40. Truly a brilliant scholar.
Morgenstern's bag of 40 tricks are not exactly carefully calibrated to specifics of the particular case. Netty Gross of The Jerusalem Report observed an annulment marathon conducted by Morgenstern in Jerusalem two years ago. In none of the cases she observed, did Morgenstern seek any corroboration of the claims made by the women.
"After asking the women for identification, and posing three or four questions about their marriages, Morgenstern simply said, 'OK, you're free,"' writes Gross.
Something of the seriousness of Morgenstern's halachic solutions can be garnered from his statement to London's Jewish Chronicle (March 10, 2000) recommending that every woman in a dead marriage go to the Reform movement, whose gittin, he said, are in full accord with Halacha. This is more than strange, given that Reform Judaism has long viewed a civil divorce as sufficient to dissolve a marriage.
Morgenstern admits that his halachic legerdemain has been unanimously rejected by every halachic authority to consider it. But he has an explanation: Orthodox rabbis are furious at the lost revenue from Morgenstern's "annulments." The adjudication of divorce cases, he claims, runs on average $10,000-$50,000, and his 300 annulments thus represent $3,000,000 in lost income.
To credit Morgenstern's argument one would have to believe that there is not one honest halachic scholar in the world. One would further have to believe that even though only a very small percentage of Orthodox rabbis ever write gittin or sit on batei din dealing with issues of custody and property division, they have all sold their souls to protect a corrupt few.
That's a stretch even for the most inveterate Orthodox-basher. If the notoriously contentious fraternity of Orthodox rabbis has at last reached unanimity on a particular issue, it is because there is only one possible halachic conclusion.
In addition, Morgenstern's statistics on the costs of batei din are absurd. The Beis Din of America, run by the Rabbinical Council of America, writes approximately 300 gittin a year - more than any other rabbinic court. Its maximum fee for writing a get is $400 in the normal case and $550 where it must be delivered by proxy. Those fees are frequently waived when the parties cannot afford to pay.
The three members of the court receive a total of $200/hr. (less than the billing rate of first-year associates in some law firms) for the time the beis din sits hearing custody and property division issues. They are paid nothing for the hours they spend deliberating. The Beis Din of America runs an annual deficit of tens of thousands of dollars a year on its services.
In Baltimore, one of the largest Jewish communities in America, the community itself pays a permanent dayan. (The other two judges receive nothing.) Litigants pay nothing more than a $75 administrative fee, no matter how complicated and lengthy the proceedings.
To fully appreciate the quality of Morgenstern's enterprise one must meet the motley crew of crackpots who play Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. The only other person he was able to find to sit with him on his 1998 annulment beis din in Jerusalem was one Kuzriel Meir. In the current issue of The Jerusalem Report ("Is This Rabbi
Really Jewish?", August 14), Netty Gross reveals that Meir is almost certainly not Jewish. In addition to an unbroken series of lies about his academic and professional background, Meir has concocted a story that he is the son of a Dutch Holocaust survivor, and was subsequently adopted by a Christian family in America.
The only common elements in the four extant versions of Meir's life story are that he was raised as a Christian, never converted, and that there is not one iota of corroboration of his story of a Jewish birth mother.
Meir told an Associated Press reporter in 1994 that "Rabin should have been tried as a traitor for running a police state." Two years ago, he moved to the hamlet of Frankton, Texas, where he is associated with a shadowy militia group, the Republic of Texas, with ties to the Branch Davidians.
The sponsor of Morgenstern's Jerusalem annulment marathon was one Moshe Antelman. When he is not busy designing bullets containing pork for use against Moslems, Antelman styles himself the Chief Justice of the Supreme Rabbinical Court of America. That august body is, according to Antelman, the first Sanhedrin in over 2,000 years with the authority to mete out death sentences. The group has promulgated death sentences against homosexuals and invited the public to watch it excommunicate Henry Kissinger.
Morgenstern's activities, sidekicks and rationalizations -including his claim to the Jerusalem Report's Gross that Kuzriel Meir is Jewish because he is circumcised - would be comic if they were not so tragic. By encouraging women to enter into new liaisons while still halachically married - the offspring of which will be viewed by all Orthodox Jews as illegitimate - he is causing, in British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks's words, "human misery for generations to come."
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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