Two Orthodox rabbinical groups conspired with a Brooklyn chasidic man to discredit his wife in a divorce proceeding, claims a lawsuit filed last month in state Supreme Court. Motivated by payoffs of as much as $50,000, the rabbis issued a document that disgraced Helen Chayie Sieger rather than assist in preparing a religious divorce, or get, allege Sieger and her lawyers, who are seeking at least $14 million in damages from the rabbis.
But a lawyer defending the rabbis says he’ll seek dismissal of the suit on constitutional grounds.“There is no reason a secular court should be able to examine a legitimate rabbinical action and inquire as to how it was done,” says Nathan Lewin of Washington, who specializes in matters of religion and law. “That is interfering in the functioning of religious agencies.”
This is the second recent case to become public involving a woman in Jewish divorce proceedings crying foul against rabbis who allegedly sided with the husband.
Chani Lightman of Cedarhurst, L.I., won a preliminary victory last month against one of two rabbis she claims violated clerical privilege by divulging to Family Court sensitive information which impacted on her attempt to gain custody of her four daughters.
According to Sieger’s complaint, she was summoned in March 1997 to appear before the Beth Din Zedek of America by Rabbi Solomon Herbst for marriage counseling. Rabbi Herbst then allegedly provided information from his sessions to the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, also known as the Agudas Harabonim. According to the lawsuit, the latter group then issued a document called a heter meah rabbanim, which “had the intended and unavoidable result of shaming, humiliating and damaging [Sieger] socially and in business in the closely knit chasidic community in which she lives.”
Signed by 100 rabbis, the heter exempts a man from the rabbinic prohibition against polygamy, allowing him to take on a new wife without divorcing his current spouse. Such a document portrays the wife as obstructive to the divorce and harms her standing in the community. Sieger claims most of the rabbis who signed the document live in Israel.
Abba Konstam, the lawyer representing Sieger’s husband, Chaim, said the heter was written because Helen Sieger refused to accept a get from her husband in an attempt to prevent him from remarrying. “We are prepared to offer a get any time, any place,” said Konstam. “We are making this offer unconditionally, without any strings attached. She can even continue her lawsuit.”
Konstam made the same offer on live radio during a broadcast of WMCA’s “Talkline,” hosted by Zev Brenner. But Sieger has yet to come forward.
Her lawyer, Christopher Sullivan, said his client had previously been informed that a get was available to be picked up at the offices of Agudas Harabonim. When she twice arrived to pick up the get, however, she was told it was not available, he said.
Regardless of the current availability of the get, said Sullivan, the suit was meant to address the alleged complicity of the rabbis with Chaim Sieger.
“The lawsuit against the rabbis for what they did doesn’t in any way turn on the last-minute offer of a get,” said Sullivan. “Mrs. Sieger says in her complaint that she has been willing to get a get, and communicated that to Rabbi [Hersh] Ginsberg, [of Agudas Harabonim],” one of the defendants.
The rabbis, he says, instead wrote the heter meah rabbanim with the intent of helping Konstam embarrass Sieger, who is a successful nursing home operator.
But Lewin, whose wife is a cousin of one of the defendants, Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag of Brooklyn, insisted that “The rabbis did exactly what rabbis are supposed to do in those circumstances — to enable [Chaim Sieger] to remarry. He came to the rabbis because his wife did not accept the get. That’s why he needed the heter.”
It is not the first lawsuit against Rabbi Ginsberg, whose Lower East Side beit din has been taken to state and federal court on at least one other occasion, stemming from its handling of a business dispute. The case was dropped by both courts.More and more observant women are seeking redress in secular courts because of malfeasance in rabbinical courts, according an Orthodox activist on behalf of agunot, women who cannot remarry until they attain a get from recalcitrant husbands.
“As the word gets out about corrupt batei din, women are beginning to understand that they can safeguard their families in civil court,” says Rivka Haut, of the Brooklyn-based group Getting Equitable Treatment. “That’s a sad fact of Orthodox Jewish life. This is why we need beit din reform.”
But David Zweibel, legal counsel for Agudath Israel of America, the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, said the increase had more to do with a lessening of the stigma against utilizing secular courts.
“I don’t imagine rabbinic courts are more corrupt now than they were five years ago or 15 years ago,” said Zweibel. “The grassroots is evolving, rather than the rabbinate. Once upon a time there was much a greater taboo about publicly challenging rabbis, especially in more charedi circles. [Now] there is a general perception that the rabbinic courts are not necessarily immune to challenge. These cases feed on themselves.”