JEWISH HISTORY: THE INFAMOUS CASE OF THE ‘GET OF CLEVES’ PART TWOBy
Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rabbi of Young Israel North Beverly Hills.
In the late eighteenth century a strange wedding followed by an even stranger divorce evolved into one of the most bitterly fought Jewish legal controversies of the era. In Part One we saw how the ‘Get of Cleves’, executed without the knowledge of the husband’s parents, was challenged by them and their rabbi, who approached the Frankfurt beit din to ask for the divorce to be annulled. But was the husband legally incompetent at the time of the divorce, as they claimed, or were their claims overblown and without foundation? And even if he was incompetent, did that mean that the divorce could be reversed?
Before we continue the story, let us take a look at what might be the basis for a divorce annulment in Jewish law, based in insanity or incompetence. The Mishna in Tractate Gittin states that “if a man is seized with kordiakos and says: ‘write a Get for my wife’, it is as if he has said nothing. If he says ‘write a Get for my wife’ and is only then seized with kordiakos, during which time he says ‘don’t write it’, his latter words are considered null and void.”
According to the Gemara that explains this Mishna, kordiakos is a form of mental illness with symptoms that are similar to the behavior of someone who has become completely incapacitated after drinking a potent wine directly from a fermentation barrel. Such a person cannot be taken seriously as he is not lucid, which means that when he issues the command to write the Get, even if the Get is written properly, and even if after he later recovers from his mental episode and says he wants to divorce his wife, the Get written while he was incapacitated is not valid and cannot be used for a divorce.
The big question that hung over the Get of Cleves was Isaac’s sanity at the time he instructed for the Get to be written and given to Leah. Was he someone who suffered from a chronic mental illness that diminished his competence? Or were the strange incidents at the time of his wedding just a temporary mental breakdown and did he then recover? Perhaps it was possible, however remote such a possibility, that his life was in genuine danger for reasons he could not reveal. Even if he was in the throes of a mental breakdown, did that invalidate his instructions to Rabbi Lipschuetz for the Get to be written?
Isaac’s father was insistent that his son had been in the midst of a mental breakdown when he issued the instruction in Cleves to write a Get, and on this basis lobbied frantically for the divorce to be annulled, even if it could be proved that Isaac had since recovered and wanted the divorce to stand. Isaac’s father cited the various episodes of Isaac’s strange behavior before and after the wedding, and claimed that when Rabbi Lipschuetz of Cleves had agreed for the Get to be written, he had been unaware of the full history, and therefore the Get had no legal status.
Those who advocated for the Get to be annulled were also disturbed by how it had been obtained so underhandedly. Isaac’s parents had not been informed in advance, they argued, and no attempt had been made to inform them subsequently. The claim was that this was suspicious behavior. They also questioned as to why had the divorce been executed in Cleves, which was a remote community. There were other larger cities with more substantial communities closer to Bonn, such as Dusseldorf and Koblenz, with outstanding rabbis who were perfectly capable of putting together a proper Get. Why had Leah and her family traveled the greater distance to Cleves? And finally, why had the Get proceeded before the couple had even had time to establish their physical relationship, which had ceased after the marital act on the night of the wedding?
The advocates for the annulment drew the conclusion that Isaac was crazy, or had been at around the time this had all happened, and therefore Leah’s family had arranged a Get below the radar, to ensure that Leah did not become lumbered with a lunatic husband. They manipulated Isaac into divorcing her, and arranged for it to happen in a remote location with no oversight, and without informing the rabbi that Isaac was not competent to execute a divorce.
Those opposed to the Get of Cleves also cited the Talmudic dictum which states that no one spends a fortune of money and wastes time getting married, only to divorce his wife immediately afterwards. It was well known that Isaac’s family had invested an enormous amount of time and money into his marriage to Leah. Isaac himself had borrowed a large sum of money to pay for his marital wardrobe. That being the case, it was inconceivable that Isaac would have divorced his wife a couple of weeks later, unless he was clinically, and therefore halachically, crazy.
Despite these arguments, the rabbis and others who supported Isaac’s parents were in a distinct minority. The majority view was that the only thing Isaac had done that put his sanity into question was his unexpected and unexplained disappearance with the money on the morning of the Shabbat after his wedding. Since he had only acted abnormally on that one occasion, he could not be judged as someone who had totally lost his reason. Some rabbis felt that the Shabbat incident may not necessarily have been an ‘insane’ act, as Isaac genuinely believed that he was being targeted by some person, or group of people, and thought his life was in danger. Although he had no proof this was true, or had not offered any, that did not mean his story was a fabrication or simply a figment of his imagination. It was perfectly possible that his life was in danger, in which case his Shabbat disappearance was perfectly reasonable.
In any event, the Shulchan Aruch states unequivocally that “a man who fluctuates between lucid and crazy – when he is lucid he is to be regarded as completely normal in everything he does, and if he divorces his wife in that time, his Get is considered valid.” Rabbi Lipschuetz of Cleves maintained unequivocally that throughout the divorce proceedings Isaac had been completely lucid. Six members of the Cleves Jewish community who were present at the proceedings also testified that Isaac had behaved completely normally – not just during the proceedings, but throughout his stay in Cleves. Rabbi Copenhagen, who had accompanied Leah and Isaac to Cleves and was present throughout the divorce, also confirmed that Isaac’s behavior had been reasonable the entire time.
There was another relevant issue that began to emerge as more rabbis and community leaders became involved in the dispute, and the controversy grew. Many people felt that it was entirely out of place for the Frankfurt rabbis – however distinguished and respected they were – to interfere in an affair that was beyond their jurisdiction. The Get had been granted by Rabbi Lipschuetz, and was therefore his sole responsibility. It had always been the custom in Germany that a beit din in one location did not interfere with or intervene in the decisions and activities of a beit din in another location. It was therefore felt that the Frankfurt beit din was out of line expressing an opinion on a matter that was essentially none of their business.
Despite the eminence of the Frankfurt rabbinate, numerous rabbis across Germany announced their full support for Rabbi Lipschuetz. Furnished with the details of the story, and knowing him as a man of unimpeachable integrity, and as a rabbi well versed in the laws of Jewish divorce who knew the implications of a non-divorced woman marrying another husband, they simply refused to believe that he would allow such a travesty to unfold simply to protect his reputation.
The man who had originally triggered the controversy by writing to the Frankfurt rabbinate, Rabbi Tevele Hess of Mannheim, unexpectedly died shortly after the controversy began. His plan had been simple, if somewhat naive. He had wanted the rabbis of Frankfurt to nullify the Get, and then have Isaac interviewed by a panel of experts upon his return from London to Mannheim. If he was found to be perfectly sane – as all those who supported the Get claimed he was – he would simply be asked to issue a new Get and the problem would be resolved.
When Rabbi Hess died, however, the baton was grabbed by the dayanim of Frankfurt, and their agenda was totally different to his. They believed that they had to take a stand against sloppy rabbinic practices, and it was their opinion that the only reason Rabbi Lipschuetz of Cleves had not realized that Isaac was suffering from mental illness was because he had not been fed all the details of Isaac’s strange behavior. This exposed his lack of professionalism, a failing that had resulted in an untenable and unsupportable Get.
Rabbi Lipschuetz himself was incredulous at the obstinacy of the Frankfurt beit din, and in the Fall of 1766 wrote a formal ruling validating the Get of Cleves, and dispatched a copy of his ruling to Frankfurt. In a subsequent letter to Frankfurt he included witness statements from several residents of Cleves who had come into contact with Isaac. Some of these witnesses had even participated in the divorce proceedings. They all agreed that Isaac had acted normally throughout. But despite this, and the halachic arguments presented by Rabbi Lipschuetz, the Frankfurt beit din did not even acknowledge the letters, and Rabbi Lipschuetz never even received the courtesy of a reply.
This refusal to engage with Rabbi Lipschuetz was extremely unorthodox. It also reflected badly on the Frankfurt rabbinate in light of the way another rabbi whom Rabbi Hess had approached had reacted to his original letter. When Rabbi Hess had sent his missive to Frankfurt requesting the annulment, he had sent an almost identical letter to Rabbi Naftali Hirsch Katzenellenbogen of Pfalz. The first thing Rabbi Katzenellenbogen had done was to reach out to Rabbi Lipschuetz to find out the exact details of the divorce. Rabbi Lipschuetz responded immediately with a comprehensive timeline. Upon receiving this Rabbi Katzenellenbogen wrote to Rabbi Hess to tell him that the Get of Cleves was perfectly fine, and the divorce stood. He also castigated Rabbi Hess for having written to anyone else before contacting Rabbi Lipschuetz, describing this as an unforgivable breach of protocol.
Rabbi Hess had also asked Rabbi Katzenellenbogen to consult with his brother and brother-in-law, both rabbis. They concurred that the Get was valid. The brother-in-law, Rabbi Josef Steinhardt of Fuerth, was evidently so incensed by the behavior of the Frankfurt rabbinate, that he wrote a strong letter to Rabbi Abish, the chief rabbi of Frankfurt, to make his feelings clear, but his pleas for Frankfurt to cease their involvement were to no avail.
As the months rolled by it became evident to Rabbi Abish and his rabbinic colleagues that Rabbi Lipschuetz was not going to roll over and concede, and that they needed to counteract his efforts against them. So they summoned Rabbi Copenhagen to Frankfurt, along with members of Bonn’s Jewish community, on the pretext that they needed to thoroughly investigate the events surrounding the divorce. Rabbi Copenhagen, believing they were now looking for a face saving way to reverse their position, agreed to come to Frankfurt and gathered together a delegation of senior community figures to accompany him. The delegation arrived in Frankfurt during Chanukah of 1766, and stayed there for three weeks. At hearing after hearing they were questioned and cross-examined by the Frankfurt rabbis about every detail of the episode, including the divorce itself. Every word was faithfully recorded by the court scribe, and Rabbi Copenhagen was convinced the evidence provided was a slam-dunk in favor of the Get.
But within a couple of weeks the Frankfurt beit din sent a letter to Bonn curtly informing the community leadership that after having carefully considered the testimony presented, they had concluded that their original view was correct, and the Get could not be used – meaning that Leah was forbidden to remarry, and if she did remarry, her children would be ‘mamzerim’.
Despite being so belligerently confident, the Frankfurt rabbinate were clearly conscious that their position was controversial, and so they also wrote to a former Frankfurt rabbi, Rabbi David Tevele Schiff – who was now chief rabbi of London – and asked him to interview Isaac in London to find out if he was sane, or whether he was in fact suffering from mental illness, as was being clamed by his father. They were also interested in hearing Isaac’s version of events. Rabbi Schiff met up with Isaac and they spoke for some time. In a letter back to Frankfurt he described how he had found Isaac to be completely and utterly sane, although Isaac had admitted that his behavior around the time of his marriage and divorce were objectively irrational. In terms of Jewish law his admission was irrelevant, though, as even had he insisted he was totally insane at the time of the divorce, if the presiding beit din did not think so, all his protestations to the contrary – and certainly at a later date – would be ignored.
Another senior European rabbi, Rabbi Shaul Lowenstamm of Amsterdam, hearing about the London interview with Isaac, wrote to his nephew, Rabbi Meshulam Zalman Emden – also a London resident – and asked him to meet Isaac and report back. Rabbi Emden met Isaac and wrote back that his meeting had gone well, and he seemed lucid and rational. This new ‘evidence’ came to the attention of the Frankfurt dayanim, and they demanded that Rabbi Lowenstamm send it to them immediately, on the basis that they were the sole arbiters of the validity of the ‘Get of Cleves’.
Rabbi Lowenstamm agreed to send them a copy of the transcript, but queried their claim of sole jurisdiction. He also expressed his view that on the basis of what he had seen and heard he was satisfied that the Get was valid, irrespective of their contrary opinion. The Frankfurt dayanim were not cowed by his forthright rejection of their self proclaimed role, and replied that they were entirely within their rights to claim sole jurisdiction, as they were the only ones who were painstakingly collecting testimonies about the episode. They added that notwithstanding their view that the Get was invalid, Rabbi Lipschuetz’s reputation was not in any danger, as he had clearly been deliberately kept in the dark about Isaac’s history.
Although they seemed to be sticking to their guns, the tone of their letter did indicate that they were conscious of the fact that their high-handed approach – which they had perhaps imagined would bolster their reputation as ‘no-nonsense’ impartial jurists – had in fact resulted in the perception that they were a bunch of arrogant, dismissive, ivory-tower bound snobs.
As all this was happening Leah’s father was busy writing to any rabbi he knew to ask them to support the divorce. He was extremely concerned that if the Frankfurt ruling was accepted, his daughter would never be able to remarry. Meanwhile, Rabbi Lipschuetz was getting more and more agitated with each passing week at how his reputation was being called into question, and he also began to write letters to rabbis everywhere asking them to consider the details of the story and back his position.
In March 1767, Rabbi Yaakov Emden, the elder statesman of the German Jewish rabbinate, declared in response to a letter from Rabbi Lipschuetz that in his view the Get was completely valid, and Leah was free to remarry. That same month Rabbi Arye Leib of Metz, author of Sha’agat Aryeh, wrote an open letter in which he stated Leah was free to remarry, despite the objections of Frankfurt.
Incredibly, despite the universal support for the Get of Cleves from every rabbinic authority besides for Frankfurt, the Frankfurt dayanim remained completely unrepentant, and even began to issue public declarations voiding the Get. Rabbi Yaakov Emden sent a message to the Frankfurt rabbinate suggesting that they stand down, as they were making fools of themselves. He told them that a minority opinion must always give way in the face of an overwhelming majority, and it was evident that the vast majority of rabbis supported the Get of Cleves. But the Frankfurt beit din was in no mood to listen to him, despite his seniority, nor would they heed anyone who did not concur with their view. And so, despite the avalanche of opposition to Frankfurt’s inflexibility, the campaign against the Get and all its supporters continued unabated.
In the next and final part of this article series you will discover how the Frankfurt beit din’s refusal to acknowledge the majority view resulted in them being publicly condemned by the most illustrious rabbis of the era. But how did it all end? Did Leah remarry using the Get of Cleves, or was she condemned to spinsterhood and childlessness as a result of the Frankfurt beit din? The answers to these questions depend on who you ask, and in the final part of this series you will encounter an incredible postscript to the Get of Cleves saga as produced by an apologist for the Frankfurt rabbinate in an obscure book published a century after the events actually occurred. The conclusion to this tragic episode is, as you will learn, even more perplexing and disturbing than the original story itself.
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