Court Rules Rabbis Cannot Be Sued for Speaking out on Religious Issues

In a case with potentially important implications for the American rabbinate, a U.S. District Court in New Jersey has ruled that rabbis who speak out publicly on religious matters cannot be sued in civil court.

The June 14 ruling — which concerns a man criticized by rabbis for denying his wife a Jewish divorce and then remarrying — will likely encourage rabbis to freely broadcast their religious judgments on divorce and other matters.

But it also highlights how difficult it can be to persuade intransigent men to grant gets, or Jewish divorces, to their estranged wives.

Jews who live according to halachah, or Jewish law, require a get to dissolve their marriage, but only a man can give a get.

Women denied gets are forbidden from remarrying or even dating, and are called agunot, or “chained women.”

In the case heard by the New Jersey court, Seymour Klagsbrun and Judith Oshry v. Va’ad Harabonim of Greater Monsey et. al, the plaintiffs accused the Va’ad, or Council of Orthodox Rabbis, of the suburban New York town of defaming them in 1996.

At that time, the Va’ad had circulated a flyer in the Orthodox community urging people to shun Klagsbrun for long denying a get to his first wife, Shulamith Klagsbrun, and for failing — when asked — to show the Va’ad the rabbinic permission he claimed to have received that would enable him to remarry.

The plaintiffs alleged that the flyer contained false and defamatory statements.

But U.S. District Judge Harold Ackerman dismissed the case, saying that because of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution separating church and state, a civil court can not decide whether statements based on religious interpretation are true or false.

“Inquiry into the methodology of how religious organizations arrive at their conclusions concerning questions of religious doctrine are, like the conclusions themselves, beyond the ken of civil courts,” wrote Ackerman.

Klagsbrun, who acted as his own attorney, currently lives in New Jersey and was not available for comment. Shulamith Klagsbrun also was not available for comment.

Although Seymour Klagsbrun appears to have lost the battle, he may very well have won the war. He continues to withhold the get, and rabbis involved in the case say there is nothing more they can do to pressure him, especially since he no longer lives in Monsey.

“The only thing rabbis have is moral right,” said Rabbi Alfred Cohen, a member of Monsey’s Va’ad and one of the defendants in the case. “There’s nothing else we can do. We don’t go around beating up people. In this case we exerted moral right, and we are proud of that.”

Cohen said he was pleased with the ruling and believed it “will give us a certain freedom that we desperately need.”

He noted that the ruling will also set a precedent in disputes over kashrut standards, enabling rabbis to publicly decry institutions that fall short of dietary law standards without fear of civil lawsuits.

The American Jewish Congress defended the rabbis in the case, and Marc Stern, the attorney who handled the case, said it would gladly defend other rabbis in similar lawsuits.

Due to a rash of litigation in recent years, many Orthodox rabbis — who lack funds for legal fees have been reluctant to publicize seruvim, or religious contempt citations.

Such citations — which effectively excommunicate people from the Orthodox community — are often the only weapon available against men who deny their wives gets, said Rivka Haut, a Brooklyn-based advocate for agunot.

“Just recently I was able to help a woman who was an agunah for seven years largely as a result of the threat to make the seruv public,” said Haut. “Until then, [the estranged husband] had been able to harass her by withholding a get and nothing was there to make him uncomfortable. The threat led to a get within two weeks.”

Haut said she was pleased by the ruling in the Klagsbrun case, noting that “this ruling strengthens the hands of those who have to resort to using a seruv, and it’s important to have that right reaffirmed.”

However, she expressed skepticism that it would help Shulamith Klagsbrun. “He’s held out so long he probably won’t give in now,” said Haut.

The Klagsbruns have been estranged since 1984, shortly after Seymour Klagsbrun allegedly threatened — in front of their children — to kill his wife.

Despite a Beit Din, or religious court, ruling ordering him to grant a get, he has repeatedly refused. In 1997, Klagsbrun and his new wife, Judith Oshry, traveled to Israel, where rabbinical courts informed of the case attempted to detain him until he would grant the get.

However, the U.S. Department of State interceded on his behalf, enabling him to leave the country.

No statistics are available on agunot, but their defenders say the problem is widespread in the Orthodox community. While few cases are as extreme as the Klagsbruns’, it is not uncommon for men to withhold a get in order to extort money from their estranged wives or simply out of spite, said Haut.

A volunteer with the Brooklyn-based Get Organization, Haut estimated she has been involved in the cases of hundreds of women in the past 15 to 20 years.

Organizations on behalf of agunot have proliferated in recent years — and a conference on the topic was held this week at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University – - but such organizations are run largely by volunteers and on shoestring budgets.

And rabbis are often slow to intercede on behalf of agunot — whether from fear of lawsuits or other reasons, Haut said.

“A few rabbis are very helpful quietly behind the scenes, but most are very silent and prefer ignoring this because it’s not pleasant and shows Judaism at its worst,” she said.

“Until about 10 years ago rabbis were denying this was a problem at all. There’s a stigma attached in the Orthodox world to divorce in general and there’s a hidden sense of, `What is wrong with that woman, Why couldn’t she hold that marriage together?’”

However, AJCongress’ Stern said that rabbis are becoming more vocal on behalf of agunot, and that the Klagsbrun ruling will accelerate this trend.

“While this lawsuit was pending my clients got calls from colleagues saying they were afraid to speak up,” said Stern. “This should dispel those concerns. It’s fair now to say to the rabbinate that you not only can, but have an obligation to speak up.”

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