The Betrothal Fiasco

When Israel Goldstein, a 39-year-old Orthodox Jewish man from Brooklyn, interpreted a biblical passage as allowing him to betroth his 11-year-old daughter to a man whose identity he refused to disclose, he gained complicated leverage against his wife in their bitter five-year divorce battle. This archaic practice of betrothing young daughters was used during medieval times (when arranged marriages were the norm) to deal creatively with erratic economic conditions. Whenever a father had dowry— even if his daughter was literally a toddler— he seized the moment in the girl’s interest, to ensure that she would have a husband. Goldstein, however, has warped the purpose of this practice, and, unfortunately, his act has triggered about 20 other Orthodox men to do the same.

The complex betrothal ruse works like this: Since Goldstein is the only one who can identify his daughter’s fiance, he forces his wife to regard him as indispensable to his daughter’s welfare. In other words, he has “half-married” his daughter, who. without even knowing who her fiance is, cannot begin proceedings to attain a Jewish divorce in order to have an eventual real marriage. By withholding information, Goldstein vengefully makes his daughter and his wife painfully beholden to him.

Orthodox feminists have responded to this outrage with disgust. Rivka Haul, a co director of Agunah, Inc. (an organization that advocates for women whose husbands are refusing them Jewish divorces and who therefore cannot remarry), says that, “Many rabbis have been fully aware of this tragic circumstance for a long time, but they weren’t even bemoaning the problem until it hit The New York Times. A problem with kashrut the rabbis solve immediately, but problems involving abuse to girls or women go unresolved. Now they’ll deal with it because they have been embarrassed by the secular media.”

Haul feels that the issue of kedusha ketana (betrothal of a minor) has great impact because it exacerbates the already enormous problem faced by thousands of agunot (literally, ‘chained women’). Referring to agunot. Haul explains, “Many women are scared to death of their husbands, and are therefore forced to stay in physically and/or emotionally abusive marriages. Even if they leave, they’re still legally bound.”

Blu Greenberg. well-known Orthodox feminist and writer. has a different reaction to the Goldstein affair. “The great attention being paid to kedushu ketana is tarring the Orthodox community. I see Israel Goldstein as the Jewish equivalent of an ax-murderer and he should be treated as such. We have enough problems without amplifying isolated incidents. As an Orthodox feminist. I choose my battles so that things don’t backfire. Don’t get me wrong, this is a horrible incident, but the agunot are the real ones who suffer, and the Jewish community should focus its attention on them. If the potential for abuse had not been built into the original Jewish laws, this would never have been able to happen in the first place. We need to concentrate on the get (divorce) laws! The uproar of minor betrothal will die down and the agunot will be left in the same exact place.”

In the meantime, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, who first brought this situation to public attention and has written extensively on the issue for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, points out that a solution to this particular case of minor betrothal has already been found. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. A leading figure in the Orthodox Jewish community, made a statement several months before his death in February that would liberate the now 13-year-old Sarah Leah Goldstein—but his statement has no applicability to other possible cases in the future. Auerbach, arguing that Goldstein never revealed the identity of the two men who served as halakhic betrothal witnesses, said that this “bad faith” gesture legally nullifies Goldstein’s entire act. On July 10, Orthodox Jewish religious judges finally assembled—after letting an entire year go by!—to make a written proclamation (not yet signed by all of them) to support Rabbi Auerbach.

According to Norma Joseph, an assistant professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal and an avid agunah rights advocate, “This use of kedusha ketana cries out for a solution to the problems of agunot. It highlights how some people are using Jewish law to control and manipulate women in general. I am thrilled that Rabbi Auerbach found a solution for this one case, but why did so many other Orthodox rabbis hush up this problem and why couldn’t they find an overarching legal solution for it? Why did it take over a year for the religious judges to formally enact it. and why didn’t anyone bother to tell Mrs. Goldstein about this until now? The fact remains that even though Rabbi Auerbach helped Sarah Goldstein, her mother Gita is still an agunah. Batei din (Jewish courts) need to have more concern for women.” Blu Greenberg throws down the gauntlet. “The rabbis quickly found a solution to kedusha ketana. so they have it within their power to find a solution for agunot. The desire to preserve male initiative and prerogative in Jewish divorce laws needs to end. If there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.”