Rabbi Accused of Kidnapping, Torturing Husbands Into Granting Divorces Goes to Trial

PHOTO: Rabbi Mendel Epstein, right, arrives for his trial at federal court in Trenton, N.J., Feb. 18, 2015.Mel Evans/AP Photo
Rabbi Mendel Epstein, right, arrives for his trial at federal court in Trenton, N.J., Feb. 18, 2015.

The trial of Mendel Epstein, a New Jersey Rabbi and alleged ringleader of a kidnapping scheme designed to force husbands into granting their wives religious divorces, entered its second day in court in Trenton today.

Epstein, 69, was arrested in October 2013 for allegedly charging undercover FBI agents $60,000 to kidnap a man and coerce him into granting his wife a Judaic divorce decree.

Epstein and his son David, along with two other rabbis named in the federal complaint as Jay Goldstein and Binyamin Stimler, face federal charges of conspiracy to kidnap and kidnapping. If found guilty, the men face a maximum penalty of 20 years to life in prison.

During Wednesday’s opening statement, prosecutors played a video of allegedly Epstein discussing a staged kidnapping with two undercover FBI agents, wherein he can be heard openly discussing the use of stun guns on men's genitalia.

"If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move," the man on the video identified by the FBI as Epstein is heard telling the undercover agents, "you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know."

"Mendel Epstein talked about forcing compliance through the use of 'tough guys' who utilize electric cattle prods, karate, handcuffs and place plastic bags on the heads of husbands," said FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman shortly after Epstein's arrest.

Epstein's defense claims he was a "champion of women's rights" and employed "torture as term of art" in order to get a husband's "evil" recalcitrance to "leave his body." According to the strictest interpretation of ancient Jewish law, a religious divorce, referred to as a "get", can only be granted by a husband regardless of the circumstances that may have caused a marriage to break up. Without a "get", a religious Jewish woman cannot remarry or get on with her life and she becomes an ostracized member of the community called an “agunah” or a chained person. Convincing reluctant husbands to grant their wives divorces is a specialty among ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The defense is expected to tell the jury about the oldest interpretation of Jewish law that broadly outlines torture as a legitimate vehicle for convincing recalcitrant husbands to grant their wives religious divorces. Defense lawyer Robert Stahl said during his opening statements that "the process is a legitimate divorce. It's not a criminal conspiracy." He told the jury that ancient Jewish texts endorse the use of coercion and physical torture in an effort to convince men to grant their wives divorces.

U.S District Judge Freda Wolfson reminded Epstein's lawyers on day one of the trial that this type of defense is dangerous because the lawyers are essentially asking the jury to overrule federal criminal law.

The trial, which is expected to last five weeks, stems from a lengthy investigation that started more than two years ago in an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Lakewood, N.J. After three alleged victims came forward, undercover FBI agents posing as a disgruntled wife and her brother, lured Epstein into allegedly describing his methods in incredible detail on audio and video recordings. Also on the video prosecutors say the rabbis are shown stretching as if they're warming up for a fight.

Epstein, who is an internationally known expert in Jewish divorce and author of an authoritative book on the matter, boasts that he has participated in 2,500 divorces.