Orthodox Rabbi Accused of Using Violence to Obtain Religious Divorce Decrees

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Today The New York Times wrote about a Brooklyn Orthodox Jewish rabbi who is accused of kidnapping estranged husbands of women seeking a religious divorce.

Rabbi Mendel Epstein has been charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey with kidnapping the husbands of his clients for money and using violence to get them to divorce their wives.


In the Orthodox Jewish community, a “get” is necessary for a divorce decree to be finalized.  Gets require the husband to permit the wife to divorce him. If a get is not obtained, then a divorce within the eyes of the Orthodox religion is not recognized.

Gets are the sole province of husbands in a marital relationship, and the denial of one to a wife renders the woman unable to move on under the rules of the religion.  There has been much advocacy in recent years focused on protecting the rights of women in their pursuit of freedom from their husbands.  This is especially true when their reasons for wanting to leave the marriage are based on domestic abuse, cruelty, or inhumane treatment.

When husbands refuse to grant their wife a get, rabbis can take action against them within the confines of their religion, including excluding them from activities within their synagogue.

Rabbi Epstein sought resolution in a different way.  He allegedly charged women $10,000 for decrees permitting violence against the husbands and $50,000 to arrange the violence himself.  Rabbi Epstein has been able to issue these decrees because he serves as a judge and lawyer within the religion.

Epstein’s activities were apparently an open secret among the Orthodox communities in New York and New Jersey.  Additionally, he spoke in depth to undercover investigators about his tactics for persuading husbands to allow their wives to obtain a get- namely employing tactics that didn’t leave marks on his victims.

The Case Buildup

According to the Times, Rabbi Epstein was sued in the late 1990s for similar conduct.  The suit was later dismissed.

When this case was being investigated, Epstein allegedly stated that “if the [estranged husband] does not have a mark on him,” police will not conduct a further inquiry into allegations of kidnapping or abuse.

With the widespread publication of this information, there has been an influx of potential victims calling into the FBI hotline.

On October 18, bail was set for four of the ten men accused of kidnapping the husbands, with amounts set between $500,000 and $1,000,000.

Family Law Parallels

Family law students may remember the case of Aflalo v. Aflalo, 685 A.2d 523 (NJ Sup. Ct. 1996).  In this case, a wife wanted to obtain a divorce decree from her husband but he refused to grant her a get.  In that case, the court ruled that they could not force her husband to grant her a get. The legal reasoning of the Alflalo court was that the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution prohibited their involvement in the religious divorce procedure. Further, the court noted that it’s not unfair per se for their decision to not intervene.  Mrs. Alflalo was permitted to obtain a legal divorce from here husband, but the perceived unfairness stems from her own religious beliefs.  The court’s reasoning was that a person, in effect, chooses their religion.  Parties that enter into a marriage within the Orthodox Jewish religion are willingly adhering to the rules and regulations of that religion.


It remains to be seen how this case will play out in the Federal District Court for the District of New Jersey, but I think it’s fair to say that if Epstein and his accomplices are found guilty of this activity, they will GET what they deserve.

[New York Times] [Failed Messiah] [CNN] [The Jewish Week] [USA Today] [Brooklyn News 12] [] [Google Scholar]

Featured image courtesy of [Sandor Weisz via Flickr]

Peter Davidson II
Peter Davidson is a recent law school graduate who rants about news & politics and raves over the ups & downs of FUNemployment in the current legal economy. Contact Peter at



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