July 29, 1999
By J.J. Goldberg
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.
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.
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