How far does the separation of church and state go? Not far enough to let rabbis with cattle prods torture members of their congregation.
Two Brooklyn rabbis and their accomplices were arrested Thursday in an undercover FBI sting for plotting to kidnap and torture Orthodox Jewish men. In certain Orthodox communities, married couples can only be divorced by rabbinical courts that have received a "get" document from the husband indicating he agrees to the divorce. This leaves many Orthodox Jewish women in desperate situations when they want a divorce, but their husbands do not. Luckily for them, Rabbis Martin Wolmark and Mendel Epstein offered services on their behalf. Wolmark and Epstein's Jewish marriage mob charged up to $100,000 to kidnap husbands and torture them using electric cattle prods, karate, and suffocation techniques until they agreed to grant a "get" for their divorce.
An undercover FBI agent posing as a wife in need of a get recorded the conversations she had with Epstein in which he said, "Basically what we are going to be doing is kidnapping a guy for a couple of hours and beating him up and torturing him and then getting him to give the get." These statements indicate that kidnappings of the like had been performed before. However, the rabbis were charged only for plotting this particular act.
The federal government respects the internal practices of religious communities, and the separation of church and state grants religious institutions great autonomy. This is particularly apparent in religions such as Orthodox Judaism that tend to be very insular. Cases like this so clearly violate laws against torture and kidnapping and therefore raise the question of when, if ever, federal authorities should intervene in religious communities. One of Wolmark's lawyers said that the use of coercion and violence in Orthodox Jewish communities to get husbands to grant religious divorces is "an old tradition." But Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Gribko claims, "they didn't do it out of religious conviction, they did it for money."
This Orthodox community values patriarchal traditions more so than government laws that forbid this sort of violence. But if these rabbis were operating solely in the religious sphere, why would they charge such astronomical fees? If their faith trusts only the husband to decide on ending a marriage, then why go to such ridiculous lengths to force these men to change their minds?
This incident raises concerns about whether women in Orthodox communities enjoy the equal rights that other women in America gained decades ago. Though one might be tempted to allow these male religious leaders to operate autonomously in their own communities, their disrespect for their own religious laws and receipt of large sums of money indicates is not matter of religious autonomy. Rather, these dangerous men violated the law for personal gain and must pay the price for doing so.