Reasserting the constitutional right of ecclesiastical tribunals to operate free of governmental oversight, a New York court has dismissed a lawsuit against several rabbis alleging defamation and bribery in the course of an Orthodox divorce proceeding.
The case, which has received intense media coverage in recent years, was brought by Helen Chayie Sieger, a member of the Bobov chasidic sect in Brooklyn. She sued the rabbis handling her divorce proceeding after they issued a rare rabbinic injunction, known as a heter meah rabonim, which released her husband from their marriage without her consent and allowed him to take another wife.
Sieger alleged that her husband, Chaim Sieger, bribed the rabbis in exchange for their issuance of the heter, and that the resulting document defamed her by wrongfully accusing her of breaking numerous rabbinic laws, effectively branding her as irreligious.
The New York ruling has been hailed by several key Orthodox organizations, including the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, which argued that the secular courts have no role to play in monitoring rabbinic tribunals.
Chayie Sieger, backed by Orthodox women’s rights activists, counters that in this case and others, the First Amendment is being used to protect corruption in rabbinic divorce courts to which the community has turned a “blind eye.”
In an interview with the Forward, Sieger declared her intention to appeal the case “to the highest court in the country.”
The ruling by the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division — the second-highest court in the state — reversed a decision last January by a New York Supreme Court judge, who had ordered the case to trial. In two concurring opinions, the appellate judges were unanimous in dismissing the case on constitutional grounds.
Both opinions agreed that secular review of any religious tribunal would be an “infringement upon a religious community’s ‘independence from secular control or manipulation.’”
But the majority opinion, signed by four of the five judges, also addressed some of the material facts of the case, concluding that Mrs. Sieger’s allegations of bribery were “unsubstantiated and speculative.”
The judges’ words should prompt serious discussion within the Jewish community, said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy organization. In light of the vast media attention given to Sieger’s bribery allegations, Zwiebel said, “I think these rabbis are owed a tremendous apology.”
The rabbis’ lawyer concurred. “She has spread these false allegations for six years,” said Washington attorney Nathan Lewin, a prominent constitutional lawyer, “and now it’s finally proved that it is untrue.”
Sieger’s supporters argued while the majority opinion had dismissed the bribery allegations, the justices had failed to address some of the key evidence in the case. In particular, they noted, the rabbis had been unable to produce the 100 clergymen’s signatures required for a heter. The defendants say they threw out the signatures after receiving them and subsequently forgot the names.
In the end, however, the main grounds for dismissal, even in the majority opinion, were constitutional.
Addressing Sieger’s allegations of defamation, the four-judge majority ruled that a rabbinic tribunal is guaranteed the right to say whatever it wants in the “discharge of private duty” by the so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment, as long as the rabbis do not act with a specific, malicious intent. The concurring decision, written by Chief Justice Milton Williams, refused to consider any of the merits of Sieger’s claims, calling the case “nonjudiciable” on constitutional grounds.
This leaves Sieger with the option of voluntarily leaving the Orthodox fold, but she insisted that she does not want to leave New York’s tight-knit Bobov community.
“I am an Orthodox person,” Sieger said. “I have lived that lifestyle and I have no intention of changing. My religion has not disappointed me. It’s just some people of my religion.”
Zwiebel cheered the court’s decision. “On a broad level we are pleased to see that a secular court sees it appropriate to leave religious matters to religious courts,” he said.
Rabbi J. David Bleich, a professor of law at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University in New York, used stronger words in approving the decision. “She had no business being in the Supreme Court even if she was right,” Bleich said. “The claims of bribery would have been better taken to a rabbinic court.”
Sieger says she would never have taken this case to the secular courts if she had any other option within the rabbinic legal system.
Rivka Haut, an Orthodox women’s rights activist, said the basic problem that provoked the case is the lack of an appeals process in the rabbinic court system in America.
“Jewish law was historically the most compassionate and just,” Haut said. “But unfortunately, in America, it’s now lagging behind civil courts. When Jews feel they have to appeal to a civil court for redress in a matter of Jewish law, it is tremendously sad. But they have to do it because there is no other way.”
Sieger said she hoped that the underlying constitutional questions raised by her case would be revisited by the New York Court of Appeals, the last stop before the United States Supreme Court.
Orthodox women’s rights activists argue that Sieger’s situation is a product of deep structural problems in America’s Orthodox rabbinic courts, including the practice of allowing a husband to choose any tribunal that will produce a favorable opinion. An equally problematic issue, activists said, is the standard practice under which the husband pays the rabbis for their services in the issuance of a heter.
Zwiebel agreed that the system is not perfect. “There would be an advantage in having [divorce courts] that are not reliant on the litigants themselves for raising money,” he said.
Observers on both sides agreed that the latest decision appears to rule out a role for civil courts as a force for change in the rabbinic legal system. The only workable way to spark reform, most experts say, is for the broader Jewish community to create some sort of appeals mechanism within the rabbinic courts. At the very least, observers said, rabbinic courts should be registered with a recognized communal body and subject to communal oversight.
“If you had groups that were communally chosen, you wouldn’t have these ad hoc courts that go off and do whatever they want,” Bleich said.
Orthodox legal experts say there have been numerous discussions about creating some appellate mechanism, but that many rabbis have resisted change.
“It’s a challenge, and the rabbis need to grapple with it,” Zwiebel said.
Change cannot come soon enough, according to Haut, who said that use of the heter has risen sharply, frequently in violation of centuries-old rabbinic procedure.
The chance of reforms being implemented anytime soon is unlikely, according to Rabbi Michael Broyde of Emory Law School, a member of a leading rabbinic court.
Referring to the disparate wings of Orthodoxy, Broyde said: “It requires a level of community that we don’t have. It requires a commitment from many different communities to accept the common polity of all Jews.”