I’ll start by expressing the same shock that most of the Jewish community felt last week upon learning of the arrests of three NY Orthodox rabbis. According to sources in the linked article, these rabbis, ran a ring in which “Orthodox wives seeking divorce ma[de] payments to the rabbis—-in some cases up to $100,000.” Apparently, the rabbis “then facilitated the divorce, often through violent means, with the rabbis hiring thugs to beat the Orthodox Jewish husbands into” agreeing to grant their wives a religious divorce document, commonly called a “get.”
The Karaite halakha actually makes an occurrence like this virtually impossible.
First some background – both Karaites and Rabbanites agree that a woman may only have one husband. (Deut. 22:22.) So if a woman is legally married to one man, she cannot get married to another man without first obtaining a valid divorce. According to the Torah, if a man no longer wants to be married to the woman, he shall write her a bill of divorce (Hebrew: sefer kritut; English: Book of Separation/Cutting Off) give it to her and send her out of his house. (Deut. 24: 1.) This bill of divorce is usually referred to by its Yiddish name, “get.”
If a man refuses to give this document to his wife, she is still legally married to him (in a religious sense) and cannot marry anyone else. So a problem arises: what happens when a man refuses to grant his wife a religiously valid divorce? In the Rabbinic tradition, the Talmud and the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah specifically permit beating the husband until he signs the necessary divorce documentation. [1.]
In the Karaite tradition, in certain circumstances a bet din can actually provide a woman a “get” in the absence of her husband’s signature. According to one of my sources in the Karaite community in Israel, the last time a Karaite bet din provided a woman a “get” without her husband’s signature was 1965. So, it does not happen often these days – and I have no clue how often the Karaite community issued such divorces historically. But, nevertheless, in the extreme case where a man fails to grant a religiously proper divorce, it is possible for a Karaite bet din to issue the divorce document -making it unnecessary for the bet din to sanction a beating. Moshe Firrouz, the Chief Hakham of the Karaite community, touched on this issue in a symposium last year.
As an aside, in the Rabbinic tradition, if a woman is not properly divorced and has children with another man, her kids are considered mamzerim (i.e., products of an impermissible relationship) and are forbidden from entering the assembly of God. (Deut. 23:2.) The word mamzer only appears twice in the Tanakh and is not expressly defined anywhere; but the historical Karaites argued that the word mamzer was a reference to a foreign nation or a group of people, as can be seen both by the context of Deuteronomy 23 and Zechariah 9:1-7. That is, the historical Karaites generally disagree with the Rabbinic view that a mamzer is the product of an impermissible relationship. Interestingly, Rashi interprets the word mamzer in Deuteronomy to refer to a “bastard” (i.e., product of an impermissible relationship) ; whereas, he interprets the word mamzer in Zechariah to refer to a group of people.
Halakhic differences aside, here’s to hoping that men fulfill their religious obligations by granting their wives a proper divorce.
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1. I linked that article explaining the Rabbinic halakha because I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the rabbi who wrote it; I thought others might benefit from his perspective on the issue, regardless of whether they agree with him or the alleged actions of the arrested rabbis.
2. I don’t think “bastard” is the best translation of “mamzer,” because in English we think of a “bastard” as someone born out of wedlock. But this is not the Rabbinic meaning of the word mamzer; regardless I use “bastard” because that is what appears as Chabad’s translation.