In March, some 200 members of Brooklyn’s Congregation Talmud Torah of Flatbush received an unusual letter. They were informed that three shul officers had been put in a form of religious excommunication called a seruv.
"These three individuals had various complaints about the leadership of our Shul, its policies and its administration," said the letter signed by the board of trustees of the Modern Orthodox synagogue. "Instead of resolving it internally they chose to defy Halacha by bringing suit in the New York State Court. For seven months, many individuals tried to mediate a compromise; no reasonable offer was accepted. Finally in October the board of trustees voted to bring this issue to a Bais Din," or religious court, of the Vaad Harabbanim of Flatbush.
The notice explained that as a result of the seruv issued by the bet din, in accordance with Jewish law, "the board of trustees voted 22-2 in a secret ballot to remove these individuals from membership."
The seruv, Hebrew for refusal, means the recipient cannot be counted in a minyan and other religious rites. "Other than his immediate family, people should minimize their contact with him," wrote TTF Rabbi Yaakov Shulman in an attached primer.
"The Torah requires a Jew who has a dispute with a fellow Jew to appear before a Bais Din … to resolve the matter; he is prohibited from taking the matter to a secular court," Rabbi Shulman wrote.
When one party initiates a claim, the court sends out a hazamana, or summons, to appear before the rabbis. If there is no response after three summonses, the seruv is issued.
Such rulings are extremely rare. Rabbi Yona Reiss, director of the New York-based Beth Din of America, said that of about 250 cases from around the country that his group mediated last year, only about five seruvim were issued.
Rabbi Reiss said whether community disputes can be taken to a secular court depends on the specifics of the case. While Jewish law dictates that two Jews having a dispute should resolve it in a rabbinical court, "there may be certain cases where the Jewish court isn’t in a position to hear it."
Rabbi Shulman said a Jew is required to comply because "the presence of God’s shechina [spirit] dwells with the bet din."
He said the purpose of the seruv is to "isolate the individual from the community in order that he reflect on his behavior and conclude that in order to be a part of the [community], one must abide by its rules. One cannot have it both ways, to snub the authority and remain a member of it in good standing."
Only the religious court that issues the seruv may remove it, he said.
But Steven Bayme, national director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee, calls the process an "anachronism" that doesn’t belong in American society. "The concept of the Jewish community policing itself was the hallmark of the medieval Jewish community," said Bayme. It marked an era when medieval Jews were allowed to run their own affairs, and the rabbis enforced communal rules through excommunication, meaning no one could communicate or do business with the rebel. "It was a powerful tool."
But Bayme said that when Jews became emancipated in the 18th century, "part of the bargain was the dissolution of coercive communal authority." He said voluntary peer pressure is still appropriate in some circumstances: for example, recalcitrant husbands who refuse to give Jewish divorces.
But the notion of banning Jews from going to secular court, as endorsed by the Vaad Harabbanim of Flatbush and others, is "excessive and anachronistic, and doesn’t apply to America, where everyone is equal under the law."