Agunah, Facebook, and Mediation/Rabbi Martin Rosenfeld

Posted on March 24, 2012

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(Disclosure: I have volunteered in recent weeks to mediate the Agunah dispute in the Epstein/Friedman matter. I have never been involved in this matter in a professional way, as only Mr. Friedman agreed to mediation.

Mr. Friedman will only be aware of this article after it appears. I speak for no person but myself in this blog. Furthermore, I have been very supportive of the work of ORA in the past. The website for the organization CivilDivorceCivilGet contains a reference to the work of ORA. I believe ORA can be helpful in certain cases of Agunah. In this matter, as you will infer, I feel otherwise.

One final word. I have been to Court on three occasions to testify on behalf of Agunot. I feel that women need communal support when a Get is withheld. This particular case is most unique and difficult, and I will outline some of the reasons in this discussion.)

My interest in volunteering to mediate the matter of the Epstein/Friedman divorce was based on a feeling that this matter has gotten to the point where there are only losers and no winners. I count among the losers, the Jewish community, as our controversies do not belong in cyberspace or on Facebook campaigns. The fact that Mr. Friedman was the only party to agree to mediation is not something from which I choose to draw any conclusion. A party does not need to mediate a dispute, and certainly does not need to be bound by an unknown mediator’s offer.to assist. However, the entree to Mr. Friedman has given me the opportunity to spend close to 30 hours looking into this matter. I have spoken to parties on both sides of the controversy. I have read much and done some due diligence. What I will say is meant to lead to a possible resolution. It may offer some insights into the need for mediation in highly contested matters, but more importantly it is a plea for constructive action in one divorce matter.

Mr. Friedman has been accused of many matters. He has been called an abuser in a published statement that has likely been seen by Jews world-over. Nothing I have come across helps me understand how this libelous charge can be made. Mr. Friedman, like all of us, is an imperfect being. He has made, in my opinion, errors along the way. That can be said of probably most who go through a difficult divorce. Is he an abuser? Not that I know. If any organization feels that he is indeed an abuser, I would suggest they produce the documentation to us all. There are strict libel laws in this country. Words do matter. Is anybody who does not give a Get an abuser de facto? If that is so, who will decide the matter?. The Talmud calls one who publicly embarrasses someone, a murderer. Would that entitle an organization, which advocates that such a person give a Get  to put that person’s picture on-line with the caption: This murderer refuses to give his wife a Get? I think not.

Why is it wrong to label a person an abuser in a reckless fashion?  Well, there are self-evident reasons. But then there is the family concern. The daughter of Mr. Friedman will learn to Google before long. Can you imagine the question: “Tatty, are you an abuser? That is what I read on the internet.”

A second concern I have about the label of abuser is practical. Would you agree to readily give a Get after being improperly branded as an abuser?  That would be tantamount to agreeing that the charge was accurate. In law school, we all learned about the sleazy question asked to the imaginary party: “Answer yes or no. Have you stopped beating your wife?”. There are many ways to win a point but character assassination does not rank high on the list.

Some other comments I have read on the internet and the conclusions I have reached:

Q. Does Mr. Friedman wish to extort money for the Get.

A. Absolutely no evidence exists for this.

Q.Does Mr. Friedman wish to punish his wife for divorcing him?

A. In my many talks with Mr. Friedman, a discussion about his former wife probably has taken up less than 5% of our time. There is no discussion or inference that this matter involves payback or retribution. In fact, Mr. Friedman has rarely even taken pen to respond to lies made about him. I have not seen signs of vindictive behavior. I have seen signs of some poor decisions, but vindictive behavior is not one of them.

Q. Is Mr. Friedman indifferent to his obligations under Jewish law?

A. I have never discussed this charge with Mr. Friedman. I do have one impression to share. Mr. Friedman goes to his local congregations on what is at least a weekly basis. He knows that each time he will enter the Shul to pray to his Creator, he will likely be confronted, taunted, and/or subject to verbal abuse. Since Mr. Friedman does not respond, I come to only one conclusion. He is very committed to Jewish law. He comes to Shul to daven, knowing he will be verbally abused. That tells me something of importance about Mr. Friedman. He may be making some errors in judgment, but he is neither a hypocrite nor a person who finds Jewish law to be anything other than binding on the individual.

Having said the above, I will tell you that after consultation with a Rav of fine scholarship and ethical piety, I have advised Mr. Friedman to give a Get within 45 days. If there are options available to Mr. Friedman for redress, he needs to initiate a process. If there are no such options, a Get will be a proper decision.

Mr. Friedman’s case has difficult facts. Difficult facts, we are told, make for bad law. Mr. Friedman’s situation involves an intersection of Jewish law (i.e. Beth Din) and civil law (i.e. civil courts). Mr. Friedman apparently feels, as I understand it, that he has been aggrieved in both forums, but there is a problem. The Beth Din cannot review errors allegedly made in civil court and the latter cannot review errors allegedly made in the Beth Din. Since this case involves activity in both forums, there is no place where an ultimate review can be had. Mr. Friedman has offered to show me documents that underlie his claim, but I have begged off from this task. I cannot be the arbiter for Mr. Friedman of what is right and wrong. In addition, the suffering of Ms. Epstein is poignant as well. My opinions in the legal sphere would serve nobody well. (I am an attorney as well as a mediator, but I have not approached this matter from the legal perspective.)

My conclusion therefore, as stated above, was to tell Mr. Friedman that he undertake any necessary review or campaign within the next 45 days. At the end of that period, if no review has been initiated, it should indicate that a Get needs to be given forthwith.

There are reasons why this matter calls out for mediation.  There are issues involving the couple’s daughter, that are apparently still worthy of discussion. This is where mediation works. There needs to be talk between the parties and not surrogates. It is easy for the “virtual” experts to pontificate on this matter. I know a good deal more than I did when I began my involvement. I know what I don’t know. This is not a matter that can be reduced to a slogan on a bumper sticker. Be cautious of any campaign that tells you a critical discussion can be reduced to 2 or 3 words. My understanding of life is that it is much more complex than that.

A Facebook campaign was aimed at convincing Representative David Camp that he become involved in this matter. For reasons that are found in a blog by Professor Jonathan Turley, I believe Rep. Camp made the best decision by declining the suggestion to get involved. He has a right to beg off with no ill-will read into his action. On a political note, Representative Camp has been a stalwart supporter of Israel and Jewish causes. I would just personally like to thank Representative Camp for all his past efforts. Those who espouse the Facebook campaign are also driven by conviction. We are all permitted to state what we feel. I disagree with many things I have read about the Facebook campaign, but I would like to believe that all members of our community thank Representative Camp sincerely for his steadfast support of Israel. Israel lacks many true friends; Rep. Camp has always been shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel. He deserves our sincere gratitude. His decision not to intervene was wise, but my advice for those who dissent is this; say what you must with dignity and humility.

Mr. Friedman has been served a seruv or contempt order by a rabbinical court. I have written my thoughts for making a seruv more meaningful in a recent article found at:  http://matzav.com/agunah-facebook-and-a-proposal. You may refer to that article. I do however wish to address certain comments to members of the Jewish community. The order states that all who can urge Mr. Friedman to issue a Get should do so. You will not persuade anyone of anything by taunting them. Treat Mr. Friedman with dignity or choose to ignore him. Do not feel that proving machismo by confronting him will resolve this issue.  It will likely prolong the controversy. Say what you must in a private and respectful way. Try to be balanced in your thoughts and comments. A recent blog by an historian discussed this matter in the absence of obtaining a version of the facts from Mr. Friedman. I do not find this reporting technique to be valuable. If you can be helpful, do what you can do. If not, just pray for a successful conclusion to this most sad matter. Do not speak without all the facts.

Some people reading this might be going to a forum or forums in the future, on this topic. Listen and learn. You may wish to ask, privately or publicly, whether character assassination is really going to ultimately be helpful. Lawyers have professional ethics. So too do mediators and therapists. You may wish to inquire which methods are being pursued and do they comport with professional ethics.

One final story and final suggestion. I was trained in mediation by Attorney Zena Zumeta of Ann Arbor,MI. Zena is an outstanding practitioner and teacher of mediation practice. She believes in a process whereby the divorcing parties together compose a parenting statement. The statement is actually a letter written to the couple’s child to give them assurance and the promise that the divorce will never affect their love and concern for the child. I was chosen, in a socio-drama, to be the mediator while two other students were to role play the husband and wife. We spent approximately 20 minutes writing out a statement, and polishing it up, on a large writing pad. It contained no more than 8 or 10 sentences. It was quite powerful. I raised the question: “Who would like to read the statement aloud?”. The “Mother” agreed to do this. She read the first 3 sentences or so, and then could not continue. We all had to wait for the “Mother” to compose herself and wipe away the tears. And this was only a socio-drama.  Think of what happens in real life.  Do you know who suffers most in bitter divorces? The children. And hence my concluding advice.

Mr. Friedman has been, and will always be, a co-parent with Ms. Epstein, of their daughter. If you know Ms. Epstein and can urge her to consider mediation, that would be a constructive act. She may not wish to try mediation at this time. (I am aware of purported mediation efforts, but to the best of my knowledge not one was conducted by an impartial, trained mediator.)  If mediation is rejected, please consider discussing the following. Ms. Epstein would be well-advised to look over all the conditions governing their mutual parenting relationship, and ask whether any changes in the plan can be comfortably made.  She can voluntarily make these changes. If this cannot be done, simply try to persuade Ms. Epstein that she may wish to assure Mr. Friedman that she will do everything possible to support his role as co-parent. If that is not doable, perhaps we can start with action that will remove the scurrilous charge, from public discussion, that Mr. Friedman is an abuser. An organization that makes such charges blithely will be unable to effectuate the proper frame of mind that is needed to bring this matter to a proper resolution. The daughter of this couple does not need to be confronted in the future with reports that her “Tatty” had been an abuser.  This will serve no one well.

This is a sad matter. Do not settle for slogans or quick fixes. Life is not that simple. Be helpful if you can. If you can’t be helpful, remember that “the safeguard for wisdom is silence”.

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