Legal Issue Affirms Rights Of Rabbi, Batei Din To Enforce Religious Law


In a groundbreaking victory upholding the constitutional right to freedom of religion, a New Jersey judge dismissed a slander and defamation lawsuit against a rabbi who told congregants to avoid all contact with a person who was found to be m’sarev b’din by a Beis Din.

The plaintiff in the case, which was brought to New Jersey Superior Court in December 2016, had been going through a difficult divorce when he was summoned to a Din Torah. The plaintiff ignored the hazmana, prompting the Beis Din to issue a seruv labeling him as being in contempt of court, but despite the associated sanctions, the plaintiff continued to come to shul as before.

Unsure how to interact with a fellow congregant who had been officially classified as m’sarev b’din, members of the shul asked the Rav to clarify the halachically appropriate way to handle the situation. The Rav advised them that, al pi halacha, they were not permitted to speak to the plaintiff, do business with him or associate with him in any way, and having been given a psak by their Rav, the congregants followed his directive.

Several years later it was the Rav who found himself summoned to legal proceedings as the husband in the divorce case filed suit against him in secular court, charging him with defamation and slander. According to the plaintiff, the Rav’s instructions to his congregants had caused him tremendous harm, both personally and professionally. Unsure how to proceed, the Rav called the Agudah’s New Jersey office whose legal services division put him in contact with attorney Ronald Coleman, a partner with the firm of Archer & Greiner.

Mr. Coleman agreed to represent the Rav pro bono and succeeded in convincing the judge that the Rav’s actions were protected under the constitution’s First Amendment. The case was dismissed, affirming an important rule of law allowing rabbonim to carry out their religious duties without fear of retribution and affirming the right of Beis Din to issue a seruv, with all of its associated consequences, against a recalcitrant husband.

“We are gratified the judge did not hesitate to address explicitly the important First Amendment issue raised in the claim against the rabbi,” said Mr. Coleman. “ In reaffirming the rule that secular courts have no jurisdiction over a Rav’s conduct as a congregational leader, the court strengthened the rule of law, of which freedom of religion is a pillar under the Constitution.”

Rabbi Avi Schnall, Director, Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey Region, said, “We are very grateful to attorney Ron Coleman for his willingness to defend the rav in this case. This case does more than affirm a Rav’s first amendment right; it empowers Rabbonim to lead their Kehilas and Batei Din to issue a psak without the fear of being litigated.”

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  1. Why did it have to be a question of religious freedom, when any and all free speech in the U.S. is guaranteed by the constitution, and defamation can only be claimed when speech is “false”. I would wonder what the plaintiff tried to claim was “false” about the statements.

  2. To sue for defamation, the plaintiff needed to show that he had fully cooperated with the Beis Din and that the rav was lying in saying otherwise. It is well established under American law that truth is the defense against defamation. Opinions by definition are never defamatory.

  3. Ready Now: Maybe. Any Reform Jew will tell you that my views on Torah are false, but they would have to prove not only their falsehood (i.e. they would have to prove that Torah is NOT from Shamayim), they would also have to prove a personal injury. Reform Jews could sue me (and most others on YWN) for saying that their religion is not really Judaism, but again they would have two problems: 1) opinions are not defamatory; 2) they would then have to convince a jury of falsehood.

    Opinions contrary to public policy can be prosecuted as sedition, though in the United States that is very difficult because of the first amendment (in Israel they prosecute sedition as “incitement”, but that would get laughed out of court in the US). Thus in Israel it is possible that Jews could be prosecuted for arguing that Zionism is not based on Torah, though that is unlikely as the ruling class including almost all judges are rather proud that they created a medinah that is “free” of Torah (they even sing about it). Saying that Zionism is based on Torah, as many religious zionists believe (wrongly, but that’s irrelevant to the discussion), might be prosecutable in Israel as sedition or incitement (since it implies a duty to follow Torah rather than the dictates of the medinah), but since no personal injury is involved, it wouldn’t be defamation.

  4. akuperma said ‘ Opinions by definition are never defamatory.’
    Wrong, because opinions that are against truth are defamatory.
    In real law which is Jewish Law, Halacha, any opinion may be defamatory if it is lashon hara.