Rabbi Herzfeld of the National Synagogue has petitioned the House Ethics Committee to discipline a House staffer who appears to be recalcitrant as to one of the finer points of Jewish law. The full text of the letter can be found here and is worth a look.  My instinct is to say that once you have said this:

Mr. Friedman’s refusal to provide Ms. Epstein with a get has been widely recognized as abusive. Several individuals and organizations within the Jewish community have spoken out against Mr. Friedman’s actions. For example, the rabbi at the synagogue where Mr. Friedman used to worship (he is now barred from worshipping there) has condemned Mr. Friedman’s actions by encouraging his congregation to shun Mr. Friedman. A D.C. rabbinical court has issued a non-binding directive requiring Mr. Friedman to provide Ms. Epstein with a get. The Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, a nationally-respected organization with 3,000 members, has spoken out against Mr. Friedman, stating that “get-refusal is not just a religious matter, but an issue of domestic abuse. [Mr. Friedman] continues to cruelly control [Ms. Epstein’s] life and constrict her freedom.”

…there really isn’t much left to say. The Jewish community has spoken on the issue, and if Mr. Friedman continues in his obstinacy, then they ought to act as it appears they have: shunning. I would also assume that someone within the community has, or ought to have, the authority to resolve the matter in accordance with Jewish law in such a way that Friedman’s ex-wife can get her “get,” and Mr. Freidman can be disciplined accordingly, especially if this matter does rise to the level of “abuse,” which does strike me as an overreach.

And, of course, there is the issue of the relationship between civil law and ecclesiastical law when it come to marriage. But I would warn Rabbi Herzfeld of the many pitfalls involved in getting the US Congress to resolve this matter for them, for it seems unlikely then that the Congress could find any reason not to interfere in the religious lives of those who work there. Given the general assault on religious liberty taking place in this country (see O. Carter Snead’s recent essay in First Things) I’m inclined to find such petitioning as ill-advised at best.

The tendency to resolve what are fundamentally communal issues by resorting to authorities outside the community can only be regarded as a deep pathology with all sorts of negative consequences. If the Jewish religious leaders want Mr. Friedman to comply on these matters, they ought to take care of it themselves.



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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. This has been going on for a while now — the community involved has certainly been trying to resolve it on its own, to no avail. But the rabbis involved are, in a sense, obligated to continue to take steps to increasingly “shun” Mr. Friedman. His local community already appears to have placed in him “cherm” — the closest thing to excommunication Judaism has (this is what Amsterdam did to Spinoza). They’ve gone as far within the Jewish community as they can — and that doesn’t complete their obligation to the wife. Turning to the husband’s employer would be a logical step in any other case — and I think THAT is the kind of intervention Rabbi Herzfeld is after, not legislative. Even though Mr. Friedman’s employer isn’t ostensibly part of the Jewish community, precisely because Congress (or at least a Congressman) is his employer, there’s grounds, Jewishly, to consider it part of the relevant community for this issue.

    This is the kind of appeal to outside authority that Judaism, in its history as a minority religion, has experience with. It’s really not worrisome. Maybe they should have turned to the Congressman Friedman works for rather than Congress itself, but it’s not that easy for a Jewish group to pressure a Republican — what are they going to do? Urge the community to vote for the Democrat?

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