Rabbis cannot be sued for opinions, court rules

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NEW YORK — 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.

Last month's 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 a get, or Jewish divorce, to their estranged wives.

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

Women denied a get 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 vs. 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 flier 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 flier 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 unavailable 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."

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 also will 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 a get, said Rivka Haut, a Brooklyn-based advocate for agunot.

The Klagsbruns have been estranged since 1984. Despite a beit din, or religious court, ruling ordering Klagsbrun 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.

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."