Two Epsteins On the Agunah Problem

I have previously suggested that Abravanel’s declaration that “death with honor is better than a life of shame and ignominy” is grounded in the Iberian culture in which he flourished. Today, however, I saw the attribution of quite a similar sentiment to the product of a very different era and culture – Rav Moshe Mordechai Epstein (Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Kenesses Yisrael (Slabodka / Hevron)), who learns this lesson from, of all things, the grim determination of Imperial Germany to wage World War I against “the entire world”, in defense of its national honor:

שאלת העגונה היא אחת מנקודות המלחמה בין הדת והחיים, וכבר הראתי מה דל כחנו במלחמה זו, הנשים הולכות ונישאות והגט היהודי נשתכח. אבל זה לא כלום לגבי הרבנים החרדים, סוגרים את חלונות בית המדרש ודורשים פרק בהלכות גיטין, ובידעם שמאחורי חלונות סגורים החיים הסואנים לא יפריעו אותם עולה על רוחם להאמין שהם גברו על החיים.

בבקורי הראשון בארץ ישראל בשנת תרפ”ט בקרתי את הרב המובהק שלי, הגאון ר’ משה מרדכי עפשטיין ז”ל בביתו בחברון על יד הישיבה שם. הכתב-יד של מחברתי “הצעה למען תקנת עגונות” היה אז תחת ידי ובקשתי ממנו כתלמיד מרב לעבור על המחברת כדי שיחוה את דעתו על הצעתי בכלל ועל פרטי ההלכה שכתבתי, ולא רצה אפילו לנגוע במחברתי ודרש לפני פרק בהלכות מסירת נפש בהתלהבות עצומה:

“מדוע אתה מתאונן כל כך על גורל המר של העגונות? תהיינה עגונות ותתקיים היהדות. הרי הגרמנים יצאו למלחמה נגד כל העולם. האם לא ידעו מראש שיפלו חללים וישארו יתומים ואלמנות ואף על פי כן לא הטרידה אותם ידיעה זו מלהלחם במסירת נפש, משום שהכירו שכבוד האומה דורש קרבנות והביאו את הקרבנות האלו מבלי להתאונן. הכבוד של עם ישראל היא התורה שלנו ולמענה נקריב קרבנות כל מה שצריך, קרבנות של הרוגים, יתומים, אלמנות, ועגונות”.1

“Why do you complain so much about the bitter lot of the Agunos? Let them be Agunos and Judaism shall survive. The Germans waged war against the whole world. Did they not know in advance that they would suffer casualties and that there would remain orphans and widows, and even so this knowledge did not disturb them from battling with the utmost dedication, for they recognized that the honor of the nation demanded sacrifices, and they brought these sacrifices without complaining. The honor of the nation of Israel is our Torah, and for its sake we shall offer as many sacrifices as are necessary, sacrifices of [men] killed, orphans, widows and Agunos.”

It must be noted that the narrator of the above is Louis Epstein, a prominent Conservative Rabbi who was engaged in a heated polemic against what he felt to be the insufferably reactionary Orthodox. Adam Mintz summarizes the affair thus:

Rabbi Louis Epstein, a leading Conservative rabbi from Boston and the president of the Rabbinical Assembly and its Committee on Jewish Law, suggested that prior to every marriage, the husband should appoint his wife as an agent to execute a divorce on his behalf. Thus, if the husband disappears or refuses to grant the get, the wife can, in effect, divorce herself. In that same year, Rabbi Epstein published a volume entitled Hatza’ah Lemaan Takanat Agunot that attempted to prove the halakhic foundation for this proposal. In 1935, the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic body of the Conservative movement, initially voted to accept this proposal.

In his volume, Rabbi Epstein described how he sent copies of his book to close to 1,000 rabbis asking for their opinions on his proposal. He explained that he received very few responses. While one of the letters was critical of his work, most of the letters were complimentary but argued that he could not proceed without the consensus of the leading halakhic authorities. He seemed encouraged by the nature of these responses inasmuch as they were not critical of his halakhic reasoning. Among the letters that he received was a letter from Rabbi Henkin dated February 18, 1931. In this letter, Rabbi Henkin apologized for not having the time to study the book carefully. While Rabbi Henkin proceeded to make certain halakhic suggestions to Rabbi Epstein, the letter was in no way dismissive of his efforts. He even concluded the letter with the practical advice that if he wanted to send copies to all the rabbis of Europe as he proposed, it would become a very expensive undertaking.

The Orthodox rabbinate responded to Rabbi Epstein’s proposal with disapproval and the Agudath HaRabbanim convened a meeting of rabbis during which various halakhic presentations were made arguing that Rabbi Epstein’s proposal was both impractical and halakhically unsound. In 1937, a volume was published by the Agudath HaRabbanim entitled Le’Dor Aharon which included correspondence from leading rabbis around the world opposing Rabbi Epstein’s proposal. In 1940, Rabbi Epstein published Le’Sheelat Ha-Agunah in which he attempted to support his view in light of the strong rabbinic opposition. The Orthodox rabbinate did not respond to this second volume and Rabbi Epstein’s proposal was never actually adopted in practice by the Conservative movement.

For more information about the Epstein controversy, see the references cited in Mintz’s footnotes and Rav (Professor) Yitzchak (Irving) Breitowitz, J.D., Between Civil and Religious Law: The Plight of the Agunah in American Society2, cited by Rabbi (Professor) Michael J. Broyde in his Marriage, Divorce and the Abandoned Wife in Jewish Law.3

  1. יהודה ליב עפשטיין, לשאלת העגונה, עמוד 34, מועתק מפה. ועיין ישורון חוברת י’ עמוד תשי”א והלאה. []
  2. pp. 64-68. I have not been able to check this myself, and I am relying on Rabbi Broyde’s citation. []
  3. p. 161 n. 8, available here. []