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Getting out of a problem

November 24, 2016 23:25

Until last week's JC, I had never heard of the case of the "Prodfather". If you missed it, too, I should explain this refers to the elderly Brooklyn rabbi, Mendel Epstein, who is being tried in the US for forcing divorces out of Orthodox men who don't want them. He would employ heavies to "persuade" them to allow their estranged wives a get (bill of divorce), without which a divorce would not be religiously recognised. His methods were said to have included giving them a taste of the cattle prod in their most delicate parts, or having them roughed up.

The rabbi was got bang to rights because one of the people he offered his get-getting services to turned out to be working for the FBI. Consequently, it has been difficult for him to deny that he was engaged in illegality. But it is part of the case for the defence that the main reason for his husband-prodding was not gain (though he charged a lot) but an attempt to ameliorate the plight of Orthodox women saddled with abusive and unloving husbands.

In other words, his was a service that helped allow an unrealistic and outdated tradition - that men could unilaterally deny a woman a divorce - to be got round in the modern world. It was, if you like, a Relate version of an eruv - the structure that permits the Orthodox to do what, on the face of things, they are forbidden from doing - in this case, divorce without a get. Helping them, in a way, to practise a sleight-of-hand on the Lord of Hosts himself.

Nothing, of course, is more out-of-place than a half-Jewish atheist like me telling the Orthodox what they ought to believe. We wouldn't even agree on what a Jew was. Their definition of Jew covers practically no one but themselves (and hardly even them) and mine takes in anyone who anybody else may have ever thought to be Jewish and just about anyone who would quite like to be.

But I think I am allowed to ponder on what a strange idea of God this seems to envisage. The Creator of All is transformed by the pious into the Great Pedant, the Eternal Nitpicker, the Finder of Fault. As with Muslims who seem to believe that God is offended if someone draws a cartoon of a man in a turban and writes "Muhammad" rather than "Ahmed" underneath it. For the monotheist, the Almighty made absolutely everything, watches over everything and knows everything. That is a lot of things to watch over, from genocide to the shedding of a leaf.

It must be admitted God created the capacity for change

Let me allow that a deity might possess a hierarchy of priorities. If humanity is a favoured project and how humanity lives is a preoccupation, then you can see that sex and love are powerful motivators, and it may seem reasonable for God to have an interest in their broad regulation. Often in Judeo-Christian-Islamic thought this take the form of God wanting to calm the things down that aspects of his creation had hotted up in the first place. So, as I wrote here once long ago, circumcision is often explained theologically in terms of reducing male animality, presumably by cutting down on sensation.

But it would surely have to be admitted that God also created human adaptability and capacity for change. Where once the "calming down" might have seemed to require men having much more power than women, those days have passed. Why would the exact terms of a divorce settlement distract the Supreme Being? Perhaps the Chief Rabbi can explain the next time he's on Thought for the Day.

November 24, 2016 23:25

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