October 10th, 2013
09:17 PM ET
By Allie Malloy and Jessica Ravitz, CNN
NEW YORK (CNN) –Two rabbis face kidnapping charges after allegedly arranging assaults of Orthodox Jewish husbands to persuade them to grant divorces to their wives, authorities said Thursday.
FBI raids on Wednesday night led to the arrest of the men, who were arraigned in federal court in New Jersey on Thursday, according to court documents.
A criminal complaint alleges that the rabbis charged Jewish wives tens of thousands of dollars to orchestrate kidnappings and accepted $20,000 for such an operation from undercover FBI agents.
Their goal? To obtain "gets," a document that Jewish law requires a husband to present to his wife in order to be issued a divorce, the complaint says.
In the Orthodox Jewish world, a get is more important than any sort of document drawn up in civil courts. The derivation of this law is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-2:
"When a man marries a woman or possesses her, if she is displeasing to him..., he shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thus releasing her from his household. When she thus leaves his household, she may go and marry another man."
Without it, a woman is considered an "agunah" - a chained woman bound to a man no matter how over their marriage might be. The implications of not having a get are serious. A woman runs the risk of being shunned in her community, labeled an adulteress if she dares move on. And any future children she has are considered bastards only permitted to marry other bastards.
In one conversation with undercover FBI agents, the complaint alleges, Rabbi Mendel Epstein talked about forcing the divorces with the help of hired "tough guys," who he said used plastic bags to cover the husbands' heads and electric cattle prods and karate to assault them.
"I guarantee you that if you're in the van, you'd give a get to your wife. You probably love your wife, but you'd give a get when they finish with you," Epstein told the undercover FBI agents, according to the complaint.
The complaint says Epstein told the undercover FBI agents that his organization had kidnapped a husband every 12 to 18 months.
Another rabbi, Martin Wolmark, told the agents, "You need special rabbis who are going to take this thing and see it through to the end," according to the complaint.
Husbands who withhold gets have been held in contempt for centuries. How to deal with them has long been a subject of debate. Names of recalcitrant husbands are often listed in Orthodox Jewish newspapers to shame them. But more extreme measures have also been supported in the past. A leading 12th century Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, actually advocated that these men be whipped until they issued gets or died, whichever came first.
In Israel, where state and Jewish laws blend, such husbands can be thrown in prison. In the United States, where church and state separation reigns, the justice system offers little help.
Epstein, Wolmark and eight others face kidnapping charges in the case, according to court documents. They are being held without bond pending a bail hearing next week, the U.S. District Court for New Jersey said.
All 10 defendants pleaded not guilty Thursday, said attorney Marc Agnifilo, who is representing Wolmark. If convicted, he said, they face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
"Martin is greatly loved in his community and by his family. ... Hopefully he will be released so he can defend these charges as a free man," Agnifilo said.
Avraham Moskowitz, Epstein's attorney, stressed the importance of the issue the case deals with.
"The only thing I can say is, as is true in all cases, there are two sides to every story. The case deals with a very serious problem in the Orthodox Jewish community, and we will present a defense when the time is appropriate."
He said the rabbi's family is doing well.
"They're doing as good as can be expected under the circumstances. It's obviously a difficult situation when your father or husband is incarcerated," he said.
The names of attorneys representing the others charged in the case were not listed in court documents. CNN was unable to reach them for comment.
The FBI said agents raided two locations Wednesday night, a home in Brooklyn and the Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in Suffern, New York.
CNN's Rande Iaboni contributed to this report.
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