NEW YORK — In a dramatic ruling seemingly from beyond the grave, one of the world's foremost experts on Jewish law has declared that a young girl whose father secretly married her off is free from the vows her father made.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the few halachic leaders who could claim authority in almost every corner of the Orthodox Jewish world, died in February 1995.
But in August, several months before he died, he ruled that Sarah Leah Goldstein is not bound by her marriage, and therefore doesn't need a Jewish divorce, because her father had not produced the witnesses necessary to legitimize his vow.
Sarah's father, Israel Goldstein, of the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y., had in 1993 revived a long-unused practice called kedusha ketana, in which a man acts as his minor daughter's proxy and marries her off.
Goldstein's act, believed to be the first malevolent use of kedusha ketana, was an effort to punish his estranged wife, sources say. His wife has been trying to obtain a get, or Jewish divorce decree, from Goldstein for five years.
Goldstein, who married off his daughter when she was 11, has refused to name the groom and the two male witnesses required to make a marriage legal.
Word of Auerbach's ruling comes as other Orthodox authorities, including the Council of Torah Sages of the ultra-religious Agudath Israel of America, have been issuing statements strongly condemning the practice.
At the same time, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes is considering whether to bring charges against Israel Goldstein for endangering the welfare of a minor. Gita Goldstein, Sarah's mother, is also considering filing a civil case against him.
In all the outcry, Auerbach was the first widely respected authority to have found a way within halachah, or Jewish law, to invalidate such unions.
His decision is expected to nullify the acts of any men similarly marrying off their daughters and to deter those considering such a step.
"It's a terrible, terrible weapon that's been destroyed" with the Auerbach ruling, said Rabbi Eliahu Rominek of Queens, N.Y., a Torah scholar who brought the Goldstein case to Auerbach's attention last August and authored the legal response that Auerbach approved.
"There are a lot of men waiting in the wings, waiting to see how this plays out, to decide if they'll do it to their daughters," said Rominek in a telephone interview from his yeshiva in Far Rockaway.
"If Goldstein would be successful" in making his young daughter a married woman, "you'd have an avalanche here" of similar cases, he said.
A representative of a secretive group that calls itself the Sholom Bayis Organization said the group has distributed hundreds of copies of a booklet called "The Kedusha Ketana Handbook," explaining how fathers can marry off their daughters.
The group intends to distribute a total of 10,000 copies, said the representative, a man named Yossi who refused to give his last name.
So far, besides Goldstein's, there is only one other publicly known case of kedusha ketana in the last few years — that of Suri and Yossi Sharashefsky's daughter in Brooklyn. Yossi Sharashefsky, however, did not have his act validated by a religious court, as Israel Goldstein did. Several Orthodox rabbis, therefore, have said they do not consider it to be as serious a concern as the Goldstein case.
Other such marriages are rumored to have taken place, though no names have been connected to them.
Gita Goldstein, who learned of the Auerbach ruling through a reporter this week, said, "I am relieved, so relieved. This is like an enormous weight is off me." She added, however, "It's not finished, because people could still question the validity."
A. David Stern, a New York attorney representing Goldstein in two efforts to bring charges against her husband, shared her concerns. "It's a wonderful step forward," he said, "but I don't know whether it will be accepted by the whole Jewish world."
Added Stern, who is Orthodox: "I'm concerned that premature elation could be damaging because someone could say, `It looks like it's solved, let's not get involved,' and all of it will fall through."
Goldstein said her daughter is also happy that the whole thing is over, though "it's very hard for her to understand this. I try not to go into it too much with her because it's so strange and painful."
Goldstein has sole custody of both her daughter and her son, David Aron, who is 10, because her husband did not ask for custody or visitation or show up for any of their custody hearings, she said.
Attempts to reach Israel Goldstein were unsuccessful.
It was Gita Goldstein's efforts to free her daughter from the marriage that prompted Auerbach's ruling. Goldstein contacted two Montreal rabbis, who turned to Torah scholar Rominek for help in May 1994.
Rominek researched the issue, wrote up a teshuvah, or Jewish legal response, then asked leading rabbinic authorities in Jerusalem to rule on the issue. "I realized that the only way this could have significance was if I had their backing," said Rominek.
All but Auerbach declined to address the issue, he said. The posek, or decider of Jewish law, studied for a week and, according to Rominek, told him on Aug. 7, 1994 that the girl is not bound to the marriage.
Auerbach told Rominek to inform the Montreal community about his decision and to have anyone who questioned it call him in Jerusalem. Rominek said he told the Montreal rabbis but they did not spread the word. Several months later Auerbach died.
When the issue of kedusha ketana became a widespread concern in the Orthodox world, after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on it May 16, Rominek began again checking into the matter. He found that Auerbach had not put the decision in writing, nor signed Rominek's response. Concerned that some in the Orthodox world would question the validity of the sage's position, he lined up other prominent authorities to verify Auerbach's position.
Auerbach's secretary, Rabbi Elimelech Cooperman, and son, Rabbi Baruch Auerbach, are publicly attesting to Auerbach's position, according to Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz, who is publicizing the teshuvah.
Schwartz is the head of the religious court connected to the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association in America.
Two other prominent rabbis — Zalman Nehemia Goldberg, Auerbach's son-in-law and a judge on the Jerusalem Beit Din (religious court), and Moshe Sternbuch, a member of the ultra-religious community — concurred with Auerbach's halachic position about kedusha ketana.
They have written their own treatises on the topic, Schwartz said.
Rominek said he feels confident that Auerbach's decision will not only free Sarah Leah Goldstein from a life of misery, but that it will also deter other men from trying the same thing.
"I expect it to be authoritative throughout the frum [religious] world," he said. "You'll always have some people griping, but overwhelmingly, it will be received with great joy and confidence."