By Yomin Postelnik
Judaism and human decency demand approaching every situation and treating every person with the facts that pertain to that individual. The common era mentality of lumping all members of a certain cause or situation into one group is a false, cruel and inhumane position.
One can and should be against all that Mendel Epstein stands for. One should recognize that meting out severe punishment on a young scribe who had no intentions of beating anyone up, and who almost definitely had his sympathies taken advantage of, not only does nothing to stop the likes of Epstein, but that such overreaction endangers all efforts to shed light on the wrongs of those who are like Epstein. Going overly harsh on the wrong person endangers the efforts of all who are calmly and determinedly, but peacefully, trying to shed light on the cruelty and sacrilege of many activists, and who are trying to promote sane solutions, countering dangerously misguided activism and trying to save marriages or procure gittin (bills of divorce) when absolutely needed, without fanfare.
Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn has started a "Shalom Bayis Beis Din" for this task. He works one on one with couples and has never had a case in which both parties came to him left unresolved. Projects like his are receiving widespread support, and are often opposed by those who see Epstein as their hero. Persecuting Shuchat, a well meaning person who was called by Epstein to officiate as a scribe, will backfire on any local efforts to return people's hearts and minds to true Torah based solutions.
There are travesties committed by those who falsely wrap themselves in the flag of Torah. As one recent poster to a site that is supportive of Eidensohn's heroic efforts surmised, people like Mendel Epstein (who was arrested for torturing individuals in order to obtain Jewish bills of divorce, bills that have been ruled invalid by leading rabbis and as is stated clearly in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law), are seeking to overturn thousands of years of Jewish religious law and tradition. They make a mockery of Jewish law, cause invalid second marriages and destroy the core values of Judaism, those of human decency and of the sanctity of marriage.
However, proportion and perspective are necessary, and charging someone who had nothing to do with planning or administering Epstein's beat ups doesn't pass the muster of fairness. In fact, such overkill in prosecution only serves to prevent meaningful societal change and harms moderate efforts to advance Torah law over harmful and fanatical misguided activism. Such overkill also harms all efforts to counter the vicious extremism of the likes of Epstein on a community and societal level.
There are many in the religious community who are sickened by the get activists when they fight against such things as marriage counseling as a prerequisite to most divorces and who know that Jewish law seeks to prevent, not perpetuate divorce. There are people who are seeking to go back to the one on one solutions that saved hundreds of marriages, and that made gittin (religious bills of divorce) rare, but resolved without fuss when all else failed. Arresting people who had little to do with the worst excesses of the likes of Epstein detract from efforts to bring mainstream Judaism back to halacha and to protect marriage.
I'm writing this piece, and this call for leniency and for no incarceration of Shuchat, as someone who is against anything who has to do with any forced gittin (Jewish divorces) except in those rare and proven cases mandated by Shulchan Aruch. Even in such cases, Epstein's depraved tactics are not what Jewish law prescribes. One can readily see how many organizations which claim to help those who they deem to be agunos have turned case after case upside down, including cases that were very easy to resolve, for nothing more than their own self-promotion and glorification. They've pushed for gittin in cases where both sides were ambivalent about divorce. They've pushed for gittin after recent births, when postpartum professionals expressed objection to divorce without diagnosis and counseling. Such acts are shameful, violate Jewish law and demonstrate the worst excesses of screaming-lunatic-activism.
One may be against the likes of Mendel Epstein or of the Marketing Director of the OU, the “Orthodox Union”, (who's now all but publicly advocating for false arrests in a series of hate-filled columns that pervert and make a mockery of the Code of Jewish Law) with every part of their being. But one should recognize that arresting the scribe who went along for the ride, was probably sold a false story to play on his sympathies, and who earned nothing for his services, is unjust and unfair to him as a human being. In this case, the community should and must do whatever it can to support him.
Torah giants like Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv of blessed memory and today's Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch have fought time and time again against coerced gittin except in circumstances outlined in Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law (EH 154). Organizations that trumpeted Epstein as a hero before his arrest have engaged in other disreputable conduct and have shown not only their contempt for halacha, but also for the women who they supposedly advocate for. They have taken many cases that were easy to resolve and turned them upside down for their own self-glorification or promotion. They've taken cases where couples were wavering on divorce and encouraged gittin at all costs. Source after source shows that people who do this have no portion in Olam Haboh (the World to Come).
This is what necessitates organizations like Rabbi Dovid Eidensohn's. The need to promote effective solutions is what makes going after well meaning people like Shuchat harmful, aside from the fact that he deserves better.
Justice can only stand when there is good judgment. It's easy to paint everyone with the same brush. Doing so is a travesty on a personal level and cruelty has repercussions far beyond the courtroom. Lack of mercy in this case also poses a dangerous threat to decent efforts to counter this terrible problem and to promote truly beneficial and effective solutions.