Irreconcilable Differences

Do rabbis have big mouths? “Seinfeld” once implied that, and all hoo-ha broke loose. In one of the sitcom’s most controversial episodes, Elaine shared a secret with a rabbi, only to find him blabbing it on late-night television. The episode prompted more protests than any other from irate Jewish viewers. Blood libel, they cried.

Well, maybe not. In a strange case of life imitating art, two separate lawsuits are pending in New York against rabbis by women who allege pretty much the same thing: that the rabbis couldn’t keep their mouths shut.

Both cases involve Orthodox Jewish women who went to rabbis for confidential marriage counseling. The women, who don’t know each other, both claim that once divorce actions began, their rabbis proceeded to share their secrets with third parties, violating a state law on clergy-penitent confidentiality.

Stranger still, at least one of the rabbis claimed in his defense that he couldn’t keep the woman’s secret, because he’s, well, a rabbi. He claimed that the woman told him something he was religiously bound to tell her husband, whatever the law.

Both cases involve an accusation, in the course of divorce proceedings, that the woman stopped attending ritual bath, leaving her ritually impure. Orthodox law forbids men to have intimate relations with women who are impure. Rabbis say they have a religious duty to warn husbands whose wives discontinue ritual bathing, to protect the men from sin. They say this duty overrides any obligation of confidentiality.

“We have been warning women for 15 years to be careful what they say to their rabbis,” says Susan Aranoff, of the Orthodox women’s rights group Agunah Inc. “People are finally beginning to understand.”

The cases are part of a small but growing trend of Orthodox divorce battles spilling over into civil courts. This, in turn, is part of a steadily escalating dispute over women’s rights in Orthodox divorce.

In rabbinic law, divorce can only be granted by a husband to a wife, not the reverse. Women, whose marriages break up but whose husbands won’t give them a divorce document, remain “chained” to their dead marriage. Husbands, by contrast, can win permission to remarry.

The plight of the “chained” woman — agunah in Hebrew — has, for years, pitted Orthodox women’s rights advocates against rabbis they claim are too slow in devising solutions. Growing numbers of Orthodox feminists seem to be concluding that rabbis as a group simply aren’t on the woman’s side.

The two lawsuits, despite their similarities, are strikingly different. One arose from what is essentially a custody battle. The woman, Chani Lightman, 39, is a Modern Orthodox Jew from suburban Long Island, whose 16-year marriage to a pediatrician broke up in 1996.

Last fall, she sued two congregational rabbis who had counseled her before the divorce. Sources close to the case say that she confessed to discontinuing ritual bathing in order to avoid intimacy with her husband. Her suit claims that the rabbis relayed the disclosure to the husband, creating the false impression that she is no longer living as an Orthodox Jew. That allegedly helped her husband gain temporary custody of their four daughters.

A state court found one of the rabbis guilty, in a summary ruling later vacated on appeal. Sources close to the case say the parties are now trying to negotiate the dispute outside court.

The second case is far more complex. It involves Chayie Sieger, 46, a Chassidic nursing-home administrator from Brooklyn, whose 23-year marriage broke up in 1995. She’s suing a rabbi who counseled her before her divorce proceedings began; she’s charging clergy malpractice.

But the main object of Sieger’s suit is elsewhere: a small, right-wing rabbinical group, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S. and Canada, best known for its flamboyant attacks on non-Orthodox Judaism.

Sieger charges that after she refused to let the union arbitrate her divorce, the union accepted a $50,000 from her husband to produce a rare document, permitting him to remarry without her consenting to a divorce. The rare document, known as a Heter Me’ah Rabbanim, or “license from 100 rabbis,” is a rabbinic dispensation for a man to remarry if his first wife is found unfit.

She claims that the document contained allegations that she was no longer fit to be a Jewish wife, based partly on her counselor’s divulgences.

She says her husband then remarried. She learned of the document and remarriage only by rumor. She’s suing for defamation and infliction of emotional and economic harm, asking $13 million damages. She asserts that the allegations against her are entirely false and have destroyed her social and business standing in the Chassidic community.

The case is raising thorny constitutional issues, virtually guaranteeing an appeal whatever the verdict. The lawyer for the rabbinic union, famed Washington constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin, argues that Sieger’s lawsuit would involve the court in a breach of church-state separation by requiring it to decide whether or not the rabbis had correctly applied rabbinic law. Courts have consistently refused to intervene in churches’ internal theological disputes.

In a bizarre twist, the constitutional issue could be determined by a ruling handed down in another court in June, in a case involving yet another Heter Me’ah Rabbanim.

The new case involves a man who allegedly refused to give his wife a divorce, then remarried after claiming he had received a Heter. His first wife appealed to a rabbinic tribunal in the upstate New York town of Monsey, which issued a ruling that called the man a bigamist. The man, attorney Seymour Klagsbrun, sued the rabbis for defamation in federal court in nearby New Jersey.

U.S. District Judge Harold Ackerman dismissed the case on June 14, saying that he couldn’t decide if Klagsbrun had been defamed without determining whether the rabbis’ ruling had been religiously valid. And that, Ackerman ruled, would be unconstitutional.

In July, attorneys in the Sieger case appeared in court to argue whether or not the Klagsbrun ruling applies to their case. Sieger’s attorneys say it doesn’t. They claim that the rabbis’ malicious conduct destroyed Sieger’s reputation, and how you read Talmud has nothing to do with it.

But Lewin insists the defamation Sieger alleges is inherently religious: that she suspended her ritual bathing, suggesting she’s no longer Orthodox. “Nobody says there was any defamatory statement that has any significance outside the religious context,” Lewin said last spring.

In other words, Lewin is arguing, Sieger is hurt by the rabbis’ words only insofar as she shares their belief that ritual baths matter.

Meaning that if she doesn’t like it, she can find another religion.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.