Why We Have the Lonna Kin Situation

May 9, 2014

By Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

On March 20, Meir Kin married Daniela Barbosa in Las Vegas though he has refused his ex-wife Lonna Kin an Orthodox Jewish divorce. Kin invoked a clause of Jewish law that suspends the prohibition against polygamy if 100 rabbis agree in writing that the cause is sufficient; he claims to have a document to that effect, although it has not been released and only one rabbi — the one who officiated at the wedding — is on record publicly in favor of the remarriage. There is no precedent for permitting the remarriage without requiring the husband to unconditionally deposit a get for the wife to accept whenever she wishes. Meir Kin is said to be demanding $500,000 to authorize the writing and delivery of a get.

Fresh Ideas from HBI asked Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Beit Din (rabbinical court) of Boston to share his thoughts on this case.

The case of Lonna Kin legitimately outrages everyone who hears about it. How can a man who is using Jewish law to hold his wife prisoner to a dead marriage be free to marry another woman?

But legitimate outrage is not always the best teacher. If we are to prevent such cases in the future, even as we do everything we can to free Lonna Kin, we must be very careful to understand what happened and why. So here are three takeaways:

1. The Kins did not sign the RCA prenuptial agreement. This agreement creates a support obligation while the Jewish marriage continues. Many agunah situations develop because the husband sees delaying the get as a risk-free negotiating tactic, essentially blackmail. What begins as a negotiation tactic oftens turns into spite by the end of an antagonistic civil divorce process. Signing the RCA prenuptial agreement makes delaying the get a financially risky tactic, as the husband’s liability increases each day, and generally results in the husband seeking to expedite the get.

Moral: Friends try not to let friends get married halakhically without the RCA prenuptial agreement. I recall one of my teachers, a leading figure in American halakhah, saying to a prospective bride: "He won't sign? Don't marry him!"

2. The Kins initially summoned one another to different rabbinic courts (batei din). Since contemporary batei din have widely divergent approaches to property and custody issues, it seems reasonable for each side to seek the forum that by repute is most likely to favor his or her interests. This disastrous tactic breeds distrust in the other party and in the halakhic system, generating endless jurisdictional maneuvers, and as in the Kin case, often ends up with the husband withholding the get while honestly claiming to be following the ruling of "his" beit din.

The RCA prenuptial agreement includes a document in which the parties bind themselves to arbitrate before a particular beit din. Such agreements can be signed separately as well, and this should be suggested if couples are unwilling to sign the full prenuptial agreement. It is sometimes useful under such circumstances to note that such agreements were supported by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory (see Igrot Mosheh Even HaEzer 4:107), universally acknowledged as the leading American halakhic authority of the late 20th Century.

Where the parties have not signed such a prenuptial agreement, it is vital that they sign such an agreement at the very outset of the divorce process.

Moral: Friends make sure that divorcing couples arbitrate their divorce from the outset in a beit din that both parties respect and trust.

3. The Kin case is unprecedented in that a beit din allowed the husband to remarry without requiring him to unconditionally enable his first wife to extricate herself from the marriage.

How could a beit din endorse such outrageous behavior? Part of the problem is that we have no communally enforceable standards for batei din, and so it is very hard to effectively delegitimize idiosyncratic positions. Effective delegitimization would require willingness by all sides to give authority to an institution they trust, even if it delegitimizes positions they favor. Currently, I don’t believe any such willingness, trust or authority exists.

For example, many of those who would like the beit din in this case shut down were or would have been outraged when similar efforts were made in the late 20th Century to shut down a rabbinic court (the "Rackman Beit Din") by those who saw its standards for dissolving marriages as indefensibly lax. The Rackman beit din annulled the marriages of hundreds of women, allowing them to remarry. Indeed, the rabbis organizing the demonstrations on behalf of Mrs. Kin are the linear successors of those who most strongly opposed the Rackman beit din.

We need to realize that no "systemic solution" can completely solve the agunah problem — there will always be idiosyncratic batei din that reject mechanisms used to release particular agunot, let alone broader solutions. The challenge is to marginalize such batei din so that their rejection becomes practically insignificant for the agunot and any children from their subsequent remarriages. In the absence of trust, and consequently of formal authority, this is a very difficult challenge.

Moral: Halakhah does not exist in a vacuum, and anarchy always has a cost. We should think very hard as a total Jewish community as to how we can create responsive communal batei din that we will be willing to give genuine authority.

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper is Dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and a member of the Boston Beit Din. Rabbi Klapper will be an HBI Helen Gartner Hammer Scholar-in-Residence, researching issues pertaining to agunot, in the spring of 2015.

As part of a collaboration between the HB's Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law and the School of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, supported by the Bridging Voices Program of the British Council, we present a series of invited reflections on the intersection of Gender, Religion and Equality in Public Life from activists and scholars around the world. Contributors have been asked to reflect upon the ways in which conflicts over gender, religion and participation impact their work and inform their understanding of events in the news. They are particularly asked to consider how religious norms around gender shape civil policy making, adjudication and women’s capacity to fully participate in public political and ritual life.