An ultra-Orthodox case that is anything but

It's not about religion.

So said Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Joseph Gribko in a story that USA Today published Friday regarding a divorce sting.

Only, this particular divorce sting was spearheaded by an undercover FBI agent posing as a Jewish Orthodox wife trying to obtain a "get," or religious divorce decree, from her fictitious and uncooperative husband. And she allegedly was charged up to $100,000 for the brutal means necessary — handcuffs, electric cattle prods — to obtain it. Ten were arrested, including two rabbis.

Yeah, it's about religion.

Orthodox Judaism is the most conservative of the three major branches of Judaism and strictly adheres to traditional teachings and acceptance of Jewish principles of faith and law. In the matter of divorce, Jewish law requires a husband to present a get to his wife in order to be issued a divorce, citing Deuteronomy 24:1-2:

"When a man marries a woman or possesses her, if she is displeasing to him ..., he shall write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thus releasing her from his household. When she thus leaves his household, she may go and marry another man."

The story also has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Daily NewsCNN's Belief Blog and The Associated Press, among other outlets. In other words, it's getting a lot of attention.

Who does the best job of explaining the complexities of the issue and exploring the case?

That depends on whether you're an expert on Orthodox Judaism (I'm not) or an interested reader (I am).

The Times excels at providing the pertinent facts but also some context and a timeline. It was the only story that layered in enough history to help readers understand why the FBI became involved  after years of claims by those in the ultra-Orthodox community. It also best addressed the clash of religious versus civil law:

While the case might surprise some New Yorkers, accounts of such kidnappings have percolated through the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn for years. In 1996, for instance, a rabbinic council in Williamsburg issued a statement denouncing the rogue men who subjected husbands to such beatings, according to a news report.

Rabbi Epstein was sued in the late 1990s by another Brooklyn rabbi, Abraham Rubin, who claimed that a group of men shoved him into a van as he left synagogue, hooded him, and applied electric shocks to his genitals in an effort to force him to provide a get to his wife. The lawsuit was dismissed.

According to newspaper accounts from the late 90s, other men, too, have come forward with similar tales of curbside abductions and mistreatment.

How such violent practices, if proved, would have been able to persist for so long may be an indicator of the challenges that local law enforcement agencies face in trying conduct investigations of insular religious groups including the ultra-Orthodox.

Most of the coverage I read did a fair job of explaining the get and exploring the angst of women choosing to adhere to religious law when civil law offers a much swifter alternative. The Daily News folds in the account of a husband who says he was victimized by the group.

The USA Today story, however, was unique in its search for a motive, using juxtaposing quotes from lawyers to frame the real motivation for those involved:

"It was not about religion," Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony R. Joseph said during the arraignment of Monsey Rabbi Mordechai "Martin" Wolmark and his nine co-defendants in federal Court in Trenton, N.J. "Frankly, even if it was about religion, you shouldn't be able to torture people to get them to do things."

A few paragraphs later:

A lawyer for Wolmark said after the hearing that coerced divorces are a longstanding tradition and that his client was not involved in any for money. Attorneys for some of the other defendants sought to minimize their clients' roles.

The issue is complex, and this case in particular is intriguing. Stay tuned.

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