The Humanist Dilemma: When Is It More Ethical to Break the Law than to Follow It?

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One Way to Get a Get: I was just reading an article about people who were sentenced for paying a private investigator to coerce a man into giving his ex-wife permission to remarry under Jewish law. Although I couldn’t justify coercion that might go as far as murdering a man for not releasing his wife, I can understand and even support doing something (short of physical violence) to force the spiteful husband to cooperate.

I feel so awful for people, often women, who are subjected to religious laws that offer no recourse for their side of a dispute—to the point of opposing secular punishment for those who break laws in an attempt to rescue the victims. Am I misguided?

If You Love Somebody (or Not), Set Them Free—or Else


Dear Free,

This is a very sticky problem for people who live in any kind of religious bubble, no matter what the prevailing outside customs or laws are. Do you remember an old movie, Divorce Italian Style? It’s a comedy (yes, comedy) about murdering one’s incompatible spouse because Catholic doctrine prohibits divorce. This is a similar sort of situation, except that the Hasidic one is skewed in favor of the man (who can move on to a new wife while preventing his prior wife from remarrying), whereas the Catholic rule binds both spouses equally. In the case of the movie, divorce was not possible at all because the nation was governed by the church (that’s what happens when there’s no wall of separation). In the Hasidic case, the woman could remarry as far as US law is concerned. In her community, however, no one would marry her or perform a wedding if her ex-husband refused to grant her permission. So unless she was ready to leave the fold, she was stuck. He could get on with his life while keeping her in limbo—no longer married, but barred from remarrying.

Unfortunately, people who are raised in insular communities of any stripe are often unable to see beyond their narrow boundaries. Many of these people are unfit and unwilling to venture outside their tribe where they may not have the basic social, educational, or professional skills needed to assimilate into a new community. There are organizations that have arisen to help such victims, whether they are escaping extreme forms of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or other faiths or cults. But first these victims—many of whom may not even have internet access— have to find these support groups and then maneuver their way out of their communities, if getting out is even what they want. For many, it isn’t. In the case in question, the woman’s champions sought to force her ex-husband to either to give her a “get”—permission to remarry within the faith—or to get rid of him, since that would be the only way she would be able to remarry within her community. She probably didn’t have the slightest desire to abandon the society that constituted her world.

In situations like this, it’s not unheard of for vindictive husbands to meet with a beating or an untimely death while the community looks the other way. Disputes are settled by the spiritual leader (typically in favor of the man), and it is frowned upon—to the point of excommunication—for anyone to seek outside help, such as through the secular police or courts of law. So it’s understandable for those who find themselves in a hard place within their clan’s judicial system to devise other remedies. But coercion and murder are against most religious as well as secular laws. It’s hard to imagine a situation where knocking off a spiteful spouse could be considered an ethical solution. When you buy into a society, you accept its rules—no matter how unfair or dysfunctional. Your choices are to work to amend the rules (even if they’ve stood for centuries) or leave the society if you can (again, many can’t). Murder and coercion are not acceptable alternatives.

Are there times when breaking the law seems more ethical than obeying it? I won’t advocate law-breaking in this column, so let me respond to that with a couple of other questions you can ponder for yourself: What if “sanctuary cities” were required by federal law to turn over whoever has been capriciously or maliciously marked for deportation? What if medical or recreational marijuana were legal in your state but illegal at the federal level?  What if abortion were outlawed again? What if everyone were mandated to believe in a god?