Got a long, impressive beard and the keys to a once respectable Rabbinical institution whose founding father has passed away? Have no conscience, and no marketable skills? Boy, have I got a business for you. It’s called the Heter Meah Rabbanim (one hundred rabbi dispensation).
Forget about the fact that this legitimate Halachic tool was meant as a last resort to free husbands from an insane wife who couldn’t accept a get (divorce). It’s got even better uses nowadays. And it’s so easy to use.
Say a husband wants to unload a troublesome wife because he’s found someone less troublesome, but he doesn’t want the sticky problem of a fair property settlement. So, you offer him your services as a Rabbinic Beit Din (court) who will get him this heter (dispensation) to take a second wife without divorcing the first one.
This is how you do it: First, tell the wife you are now representing the husband, and send her a summons to your Beit Din, warning her she has eight days to show up, or you’ll rule without her, and charge her with being a “moredet” (rebellious wife). Then mail it late so she won’t get it in time to appear and ignore the fact she’s started arbitration proceedings with another Beit Din. When she doesn’t show up, you write up a “psak” (ruling) saying she’s an “apostate,” and “not fit to live with and have sexual relations with.” Write that she’s “ignored three summonses and a writ of recalcitrance.”
Say anything you want, since you never bothered to talk to the woman, and even the husband, when later questioned under oath denies she’s guilty of any of these charges. Small problem. She probably won’t sue — she’s just a woman after all, and after you publish your ruling all over her close-knit Chassidic community, she’ll have other problems, believe me.
Then you write up a fax with all this information and send it to your Rabbinic colleagues in the Holy Land, asking them to sign on a “Hundred Rabbi Dispensation,” to free the poor husband from the harridan. You use your letterhead. You have rabbinical relatives in Israel. Who will ask any questions? They certainly won’t bother to call the wife, she’s just a woman after all, and they are holy Rabbis who don’t talk to women, ptu, ptu, ptu…
Then signatures in hand (or perhaps not — you can always say you saw the signatures, but then threw them away) demand $50,000 to $100,000 from the husband for your services. He’ll pay it gratefully, having already found a new woman, whom he’ll marry in Florida (which doesn’t recognize a religious wedding ceremony as binding, so avoiding charges of bigamy). He’ll have a child and live happily ever after, leaving wife number one an agunah for the rest of her days.
Sounds good? Now, I must warn you, that this business too has its hazards. Let’s say, for example, the first wife just won’t roll over. Worse, she hires a nice Park Avenue lawyer named Sullivan who sues you for being the corrupt, bribe-taking crooks you are, forcing you to face a jury in a civil court which play by different rules than you are used to back home in Boro Park and Williamsburg.
Such is the alleged situation now facing Rabbis Aryeh Ralbag, Zvi Meir Ginsburg, Haim Kraus, Elimelech Zalman Lebovitz, and Solomon B. Herbst, AKA the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada or Agudas Horabonim. The plaintiff, Helen Chayie Sieger, who has been battling this out in court for years, now faces still another decision in August in the Supreme Court of the State of New York.
Having read the legal papers in this case, a few things were particularly shocking to me (and after all these years, folks, I don’t shock easily). The husband withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from his bank account and then “forgot” what he did with the money. At exactly the same time, Rabbis Ralbag and Ginsburg allegedly mysteriously received payments from a third party for fifty thousand dollars each, which they promptly invested in lucrative bank shares.
Nor was this an isolated case. In the sworn testimony of a Mr. Fred Frankel, Rabbi Ralbag said he charged one hundred thousand dollars for a heter, at least half in cash. Rabbinical judges, as I understand it, aren’t allowed to make any profit at all for their work, according to Halacha. Nevertheless, the UOR defendants argue that “fees surely vary from case to case depending on each case’s difficulty” and “a large fee may have been requested in the Frankel case because Rabbi Ralbag did not want to take the case and assumed that the prospective party would be deterred if the fee was high enough.”
This is what Chayie Sieger has to say: “Throughout their motion papers, the UOR defendants huff and puff about how outrageous it is that an Orthodox woman would turn to the secular courts for relief. And, in theory, they are right. I would have much preferred to have been able to resolve this case in a fair hearing before impartial and respected Rabbinical judges. But because there is no appellate protection against corrupt and abusive Beit Din practices, especially for women, I had no choice but to appeal to the fair and just procedure of the New York legal system… I have been waiting for two and a half years… During this time, I have endured constant threats, humiliation, attacks on my reputation, and personal and business pressures that I never dreamed possible and cannot even begin to describe to the court.
“At the flick of a wrist, these defendants destroyed my family and my life in the only community I have ever known, without any thought whatsoever for my dignity as a human being or of the procedures and principles of Jewish law…. Hopefully, the result in this case will lead to the adoption of mandatory and regulated Beth Din guidelines and procedures so that in the future we can once again turn to our Beit Din system with pride.”
Amen, Chayie Sieger. I hope you win for all our sakes. Especially for the sake of Heaven.