Rabbi Simcha Krauss, who in the face of harsh attacks from colleagues headed a New York-based rabbinical court that has helped scores of Orthodox women obtain Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, liberating them to remarry and start families with their new spouses, died on Jan. 20 in Jerusalem. He was 84.
His death, in a hospital, was caused by complications during hip replacement surgery, said his son, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, the principal of SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
Having studied under two giants of Torah and Talmud, Rabbis Joseph Soloveitchik and Yitzchok Hutner, Rabbi Krauss brought his stature to roiling debates within the Orthodox world over how far to go in expanding the religious roles of women.
As a pulpit rabbi in Queens in the late 1990s, he was among the first rabbis to permit women to have separate Sabbath services so that they could read from the Torah, a privilege that strict Orthodox practice reserves for men during public worship.
Then he caused a stir in 2014 when he agreed to lead a newly formed rabbinical court, the International Beit Din, in Riverdale. The court became known — critics might say infamous — for tenaciously searching out technical flaws, loopholes and acts of deception in order to void marriages when the husband refused to grant a bill of religious divorce, known in Hebrew as a get.
A passage in the Book of Deuteronomy (24:1) states that a husband will “write his wife a bill of divorce and place it in her hands.” If he refuses, even if they have already been divorced in a civil court, his spouse cannot remarry. Thousands of women with estranged but defiant husbands have spent years in desperate limbo, sometimes beyond their childbearing years.
Such impasses are also ripe for blackmail, with husbands known to demand hundreds of thousands of dollars or complete custody of the children before they will offer a get.
Women in these agonizing predicaments are known as agunot, or “chained” women.
Traditionally, Jewish communities try to break such deadlocks by putting social pressure on the husband or even threatening ostracism. But when those methods do not work, the women are left without recourse.
“I learned what an aguna was because I saw it in the flesh,” Rabbi Krauss said in an interview in 2017 with The Jerusalem Post, telling of women he had met in the congregations he led.
His was not the first such court. In the late 1990s, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a onetime provost at Yeshiva University in New York, created a three -judge panel in Manhattan that invalidated 190 marriages in its first year and a half. But Rabbi Krauss turned an aberration into something of a mutiny against the Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox establishments by its most progressive adherents.
One esteemed teacher at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, wrote an open letter deeming Rabbi Krauss unqualified to render such decisions and calling the rabbinical court’s rulings invalid. About two months ago, a rabbinical arm of Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, urged rabbis around the world to disregard annulments by the International Beit Din, adding that “while the plight of agunos pains us deeply,” the court’s rulings “only complicates a woman’s situation.”
But Rabbi Krauss stood his ground.
“It’s not about halacha,” he said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law. “It’s because people are afraid to change the culture.”
Blu Greenberg, an activist for agunot, who helped found the International Beit Din, said Rabbi Krauss’s court was distinctive for its transparency; it published, online, the reasons for declaring a marriage “mistaken” — akin to voiding it — while keeping the identity of the spouses confidential. And his interpretation of the Talmud and other books of Jewish law allowed for these annulments, she said.
Taking such Sam Spade-investigative steps as checking wedding videos, Rabbi Krauss’s court discovered that witnesses to one wedding contract were unacceptable blood relatives or people who had desecrated the Sabbath. He looked for evidence that husbands had not disclosed mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder, before marriage. The court has liberated 120 women, according to Ms. Greenberg, who is president of Beit Din’s board.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, the retired leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, who founded a seminary that ordains women to perform rabbinical functions, said in a eulogy that Rabbi Krauss was “a genius of Jewish law.” But he added that Rabbi Krauss had also “felt the tears of agunot, and he knew — he knew — that this was not God’s wish.”
Rabbi Krauss, he said, was a person of sweet and humble character and not a fighter by nature, but “he was not afraid to stand alone.”
Rabbi Weiss recalled that in the mid-1990s, when women from his Hillcrest, Queens, congregation began holding separate prayer services with Torah readings for bat mitzvahs, the local Orthodox rabbinical association, the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, issued a resolution barring such services. Rabbi Krauss was one of only two dissenters and came under vitriolic criticism by his colleagues.
“You can hurt me, you can insult me, but at the end of the day this is not about me,” he told reporters at the time. “We’re standing up for these women, and if we win, the whole community wins, and if we lose, more is lost than we can ever know.”
A descendant of a line of rabbis going back more than 10 generations, Simcha Krauss was born on June 29, 1937, in Czernowitz, in what is now Ukraine, and grew up in the Romanian city of Sibiu. His father, Abraham Krauss, was the city’s chief rabbi; his mother, Pearl Ginzberg was a traditional rebbetzin and homemaker.
The family survived the Holocaust, but with Communists taking over Romania, the family fled to the United States in 1948. The elder Rabbi Krauss was appointed leader of a congregation in Upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge.
Simcha studied at Yeshiva Chasam Sofer in Brooklyn and then, after high school, at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, which ordained him and where he studied with Rabbi Hutner. He also received a bachelor’s degree in political science from City College of New York and a master’s in that subject from the New School in Manhattan.
His first pulpits were in Utica, N.Y., and St. Louis, and he simultaneously taught political science at local colleges. Those positions were followed by his appointment as leader of Young Israel of Hillcrest, his Queens congregation, where he remained for 25 years. He taught classes at Yeshiva University and was active in the Religious Zionists of America, serving as its president for a time. His wife, Esther (Wiederman) Krauss became the founding principal of Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J., where its students could study Talmud, whose labyrinthine legal arguments had traditionally been reserved for boys and men.
She survives him along with their son, Binyamin; two daughters, Dr. Rebecca Harcsztark, a clinical psychologist, and Dr. Aviva C. Krauss, a pediatric oncologist; and 12 grandchildren.
In 2005, Rabbi Krauss accomplished a lifelong dream of settling in Israel, choosing to teach at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. But about 10 years later he went back to New York to lead the Riverdale rabbinical court, cognizant of the attacks he would have to endure.
“‘When you’re older you’re less afraid, so you do what you believe in,’” his son recalled him saying. “So that’s what he did. He let them talk and he did his work. And that’s how he fought back.”