Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter



Seder in the Court

Eytan Kobre

More and more, halachah is entering the courtroom, where secular judges have to consider areas of Jewish law such as yerushah, shtaros, and gittin. How do lawyers explain these concepts? And is anyone on the other side of the bench listening?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the midst of marital difficulties, a woman approached two prominent Five Towns rabbanim for guidance, and, in the course of their conversations, revealed that she was not shomeres mitzvos.

But then the rabbis did something shocking, at least to a secular psychologist: They relayed that incriminating information to the woman’s husband, with whom she was battling for custody of their children.

The woman took the rabbis to court, claiming a breach of confidentiality. The defendants, in turn, hired Frank Snitow, an Orthodox attorney who has handled numerous high-profile cases in the Jewish community. Snitow argued that although confidential communications to one’s clergyman were not admissible as evidence in court, a clergyman’s revelation of such conversations was not a basis for damages in a civil suit. Professionals like doctors and lawyers, he contended, are governed by state law, which requires them to be licensed and can sanction them for professional misconduct. Or, for that matter, for revealing confidences.

Rabbis, on the other hand, do not derive their right to practice from the state, but from their religion, and thus are not subject to state regulation of their practices. Separately, Mr. Snitow argued that Jewish law required his clients to reveal the wife’s failure to observe religious law to her husband, and thus, invoking a confidentiality requirement would run afoul of the United States Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religious practice. The case eventually arrived at the Court of Appeals inAlbany, where the state’s highest judges ruled 7-0 in the rabbis’ favor.

Mr. Snitow notes that “Judaism’s rules of confidentiality are, at once, more stringent and more lenient than those of secular law. Thus, the halachah prohibits anyone, not just members of certain professions, from revealing things they’ve been told in confidence. But by the same token, there are circumstances in which one is positively required to reveal private information, such as to prevent a transgression of Jewish law.”

As Orthodox Jews have become ever more active in the broader American society, the number of court cases in which Jewish law plays a role have mushroomed. Only recently, the public has been treated to headlines trumpeting stories like “Chassidic New York City policeman sues to keep his beard,” “City suesWilliamsburgshopkeepers over modesty signs” and “Vigilante tactics used to coerce recalcitrant husbands to divorce their wives.” It sometimes seems as if every other month, yet another high-profile legal episode unfolds in which various aspects of halachah, including some that sound exotic or incomprehensible to the secular ear, take center stage.

In reality, however, halachah and secular law have been interfacing in American courts for as long as there has been a judicial system. At times, in fact, court battles involving halachah have established new precedents in American law itself.

“In this case halachah and secular law differed,” Mr. Snitow adds. “However, these two legal systems often converge. At bottom, with increasingly sophisticated matters implicating civil law and halachah, raised in both secular courts and beis din, it is essential that litigants and their legal representatives be prepared to recognize and utilize both systems of jurisprudence.”

 

To read the rest of this story, please buy this issue of Mishpacha or sign up for a weekly subscription

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.
CAPTCHA
Message


MM217
 
Not a Newspaper
Shoshana Friedman A deeper difference between newspapers and magazines
Services in Shards
Rabbi Moshe Grylak “Such a painful, malicious lie!”
The Pittsburgh Protests: All Politics All the Time
Yonoson Rosenblum The old rule — “no enemies on the left” — still applies
Danger: School Crossing
Eytan Kobre The hypocrisy of YAFFED’s assertion is breathtaking
Real Laughter and Real Tears
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger The two sides of a life lived with emunah
Work/Life Solutions with Eli Langer
Moe Mernick I was proud to be “that guy with the yarmulke”
Is Ktchong! a Mitzvah? When Prayer and Charity Collide
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman These cannot both be done effectively at the same time
An Honest Shidduch
Jacob L. Freedman “Baruch Hashem I’m cured, and this will be my secret”
A Blessing in Disguise
Riki Goldstein “I never thought the song would catch on as it has”
Ishay and Motti Strike a Common Chord
Riki Goldstein Bringing together two worlds of Jewish music
What’s your favorite Motzaei Shabbos niggun?
Riki Goldstein From the holy and separate back to the mundane
Rightfully Mine
Faigy Peritzman Don’t regret the job you didn’t land; it was never yours
Growing Greener Grass
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Nurture your blessings and watch them blossom
My Way or the High Way
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt We know what we want — but do we know what He wants?