U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Court Affirms Kidnapping Convictions of Rabbis Who Did It for Religious Purposes

Divorce is painful enough, but beating a man to sign divorce papers? Oy vey!

Yet that's what three Jewish rabbis were doing. They kidnapped husbands, then beat and tortured them to finalize their religious divorces.

And you thought circumcision was painful!

"Against Their Religion"

Rabbis Mendel Epstein, Jay Goldstein, and Binyamin Stimler were caught in the act and charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping in 2013. Prosecutors said they used brutal methods and tools, including handcuffs and electric cattle prods, to force Jewish men to participate in divorce proceedings.

Under Jewish law, the rabbis claimed, a man must give his wife written permission to divorce. Epstein, the ringleader, said he was helping the wives because they couldn't remarry as long as their husbands refused to cooperate.

At trial, the rabbis sought refuge in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying it protected their "sincerely held religious beliefs." The judge didn't buy it.

A jury convicted them. Epstein was sentenced to ten years, Goldstein to eight and Stimler to three.

Jewish Marital Law

On appeal, the rabbis complained about due process, jury instructions, yada, yada, yada. But the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed their convictions.

The biggest problem, from rabbis' perspective, was the trial court's refusal to allow them to talk about Jewish marital law. The judge said it would have confused the jury.

The appeals court considered their argument, including the vocabulary, such as "get" for the contract, "eid" for a witness and "psak kefiah," which are contempt orders authorizing sanctions, including the use of force against a husband to secure a get. But it would not have helped the jury, the court said.

"Suggesting that the defendants acted for a religious purpose might have given rise to the
potential for jury nullification, which we have held is substantially prejudicial," the three-judge panel said in United States v. Stimler.

For the latest news from the Third Circuit, subscribe to FindLaw's Third Circuit Newsletter.

Related Resources: