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An Un-Orthodox Divorce

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At the same time, Chayie says, Herbst was trying to get her to sign an arbitration agreement. When both of these things failed, Chaim Sieger found another avenue to pursue—an obscure, rarely used 1,000-year-old procedure known in Hebrew as a Heter Meah Rabanim, or Decree of 100 Rabbis.

Basically, the Heter was devised to enable a husband whose wife was somehow not able or not willing (“recalcitrant”) to participate in the process to obtain a divorce and remarry. According to experts on Jewish law, it was intended for use in extraordinary cases in which the wife had run away or been institutionalized or somehow incapacitated. Because it is such an extreme measure, the document requires the signatures of 100 rabbis in three different countries.

Though none of these conditions appears to have existed in the Siegers’ marital dispute—and there is great controversy in the Jewish community about whether the decree should be used under any circumstances—Chaim managed to secure a Heter. The document was issued by a bet din (rabbinical court) that operates under the aegis of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, a small, right-wing organization that has achieved some notoriety for its strident, outrageous public statements about non-Orthodox Jews. But why would the court issue this document? Why would 100 rabbis sign off on it?

The most serious charge in the 27-page English translation of the Heter is that Chayie Sieger was “not fit to live with and have sexual relations with” because she failed to attend the mikvah; more precisely, she would pick fights with her husband to delay or avoid going. Short of calling her a whore, this is the worst thing you can say about an Orthodox woman. “It’s ridiculous. If I can’t be trusted to go to the mikvah,” Sieger says, “then the food in my house probably isn’t kosher either. It’s like saying I’m not even Orthodox.”

The Heter also charges that she was unable to care for her children because she was more interested in her career (“even though Mr. Sieger supported her with dignity”), and that she filled her house with “quarrels and embarrassment,” turning it into “an insane asylum.” According to the Heter, she did this by waking her husband up in the middle of the night, turning the radio on really loud, and pouring water on him while he slept.

Sieger believes that the rabbis who run this court were bribed by her husband to issue the Heter. She filed a $13 million civil suit in 1998 charging them with accepting bribes that ranged from $50,000 to as much as $215,000. She also charged them with defaming her and essentially ruining her life by leaking information contained in the Heter in Borough Park.

“All my life I’ve trusted rabbis, believed in them,” says Sieger. “So why wouldn’t people believe what’s been said about me? After all, if the rabbis are saying these things, then they must be true.”

Sieger believes her husband paid the rabbis to issue the Heter and its damaging accusations so he could use the document to blackmail her into giving him what he wants in the divorce settlement. In other words, he would tell her the Heter existed, then offer to have it torn up if she accepted a get on his terms. However, she chose to fight rather than give in. “Look,” she says, “husbands are entitled to be greedy, vindictive, angry, or whatever. But they shouldn’t have rabbis to help them act on those impulses.”

For their part, Rabbis Aryeh Ralbag, Haim Kraus, Hersh Meir Ginsberg, Elimelech Zalman Lebowitz, and Solomon B. Herbst vehemently deny Sieger’s charges. Well-known Washington, D.C., attorney Nathan Lewin, who has litigated many highly charged cases involving Orthodox Judaism, is handling their defense with a bare-knuckles bravado that seems to indicate a personal passion for the case. (Herbst is represented by Louis Tratner.)

“She’s managed to mislead and bamboozle everybody with her stories,” says Lewin, a compact man with white hair and a trim white beard, whose fees for defending the rabbis are being paid, in large part, by Chaim Sieger.

Chayie Sieger’s response is succinct: “Nat Lewin would represent a monkey, as long as it’s male and has a beard.”

It is clear from the legal briefs, the various motions, and the mountain of deposition transcripts that the defense position is that Chayie Sieger is making everything up. But if she is indeed lying about everything, what about the police report from the 66th Precinct that was filed when she’d gone in after she says Chaim had beaten her?

“I don’t believe Chaim Sieger beat her up,” says Lewin, an observant Jew who says he knows of cases where women inflict wounds on themselves. “I have seen other instances when women make false claims about what their husbands do.”

While Chayie Sieger’s original sin in the eyes of the Bobov community was walking out on her husband, her second, perhaps even more serious transgression was to seek relief in the secular courts. To understand how serious an offense this is considered in Hasidic communities, you only have to know that a poster popped up all over Borough Park that said, in Hebrew, IT IS A COMMANDMENT TO KILL A MOSER (an informer, someone who tells stories outside the community). “Rabbi Daniel Frommel took me to his synagogue in Brooklyn and showed me the poster,” Sieger says. “He told me I was the target for going outside the rabbinic courts.” Ironically, Sieger herself agrees that Orthodox Jews should not use the secular courts. “I never would have gone outside if there had been another choice. But I was desperate, and I knew there was no chance I was going to get justice any other way.”

Chayie Sieger was not quite 18 when a family friend suggested to her parents that she meet a young yeshiva student named Chaim. Perhaps, if the unofficial matchmaker was right, they would like one another. In Borough Park, where Hasidic Jews do things the same way they did them hundreds of years ago in Eastern Europe, this was the first step in arranging a marriage.

As it turned out, Sieger was quite taken with her “blind date,” whom she remembers even then, when he was barely 20, as a very charming smooth talker. And so, on their third heavily chaperoned meeting at her house, they had a l’chaim: a toast to the couple’s engagement. It was June, and the following March, filled with hope and expectation, the two young Hasids were married. The year was 1972. Twelve months later, they had a son, and two years after that a daughter.

But very early on in their life together, there were signs of trouble. Nine months after the wedding, when Sieger was six months pregnant, she says, a woman who worked with her husband called and said she had had an affair with him. The woman claimed she was calling because she felt guilty and because she thought it was a terrible way for a supposedly pious man to behave.

When Sieger confronted her husband with this information, she says, he didn’t even flinch. He said the woman was angry because she hadn’t gotten a weekly paycheck she believed she deserved and this was her way to get even. “I made excuses from the very beginning,” Chayie Sieger says. “I heard what I wanted to hear and believed what I wanted to believe. It took a long time, but eventually I realized there’s no fixing this guy.”

Still, Sieger says, she suffered quietly, never telling anyone what was going on. Even when she finally left and her son and daughter turned on her, she would not let them hear the details of their father’s secret life on the audiotapes. The only people who knew the truth, she says, were her father, her brother, and Solomon Halberstam, the Bobov grand rebbe.

In June 1996, six months after she had moved out, Sieger went to the Bobover rebbe’s daughter and requested a meeting with her father. She hoped that if she told Halberstam her story, he would help her get through the difficulties in the best way possible.

And so, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon she went to a house at the corner of 48th Street and Fifteenth Avenue. The building contains both the synagogue and the rebbe’s home. They sat down at the dining-room table in his modestly furnished second-floor apartment.

She asked the rebbe, who was dressed in the traditional chalat, the black silk belted robe, to talk to her husband and help her secure a get. The rebbe asked her what the problems were in her marriage and told her to speak candidly.

“I talked to him about Chaim’s bizarre behavior,” she says, “and explained that for a long time I thought I could change him. But after years of trying, I finally realized I couldn’t. He was very sympathetic and very disappointed in Chaim. ‘How could I not have known?’ he asked. I was surprised by how warm he was on a personal basis with a woman.”

The rebbe told Chaim he should give her a get, and his daughter told Chayie she should go to see Rabbi Herbst for counseling. “In the meantime,” she says, “Chaim was telling everyone nothing happened. We just had a little fight and it’ll all be fine.”

In the rabbinic tribunal system as it’s currently practiced in America, there is no central authority—no oversight, nor any avenue for appeal. And simply refusing to show up if someone starts a proceeding is not as easy as it sounds. “If you and I have a dispute, it is very difficult for you to refuse to come to court,” says Rabbi Moshe Dovid Tendler, professor of Talmudic law at an affiliate of Yeshiva University.

“Essentially, I have you over a barrel. If you don’t come, there can be rabbinic sanctions. For example, you can be prohibited from being called up to the Torah. And there are social sanctions as well. You’ll stop receiving invitations.”

If you refuse to go to court, other ultra-Orthodox people may even stop doing business with you. They will assume you can’t be trusted, and if there is a disagreement of some kind, they’ll have no recourse because you won’t appear in court.

In this case, Chaim Sieger went to a rabbinic court run by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and asked them to preside over his divorce. They agreed to take the case and sent Chayie a hazmannah, which is something between a summons and an invitation to appear.

Sieger says she was told by a knowledgeable rabbi that she would not get a fair hearing from this court. He told her to instead opt for a zabla, which is, in essence, going to arbitration. She picks a representative, the other side also picks a representative, and then the two of them pick an arbitrator to hear the case. She then notified the court of her intent to seek a zabla.

Beyond this point, however, events become impossibly murky. The rabbis’ side argues that Chayie Sieger never followed through on the zabla request and that she didn’t respond to the next two hazmannahs they sent. Jewish law states that if the notices are ignored, the court can then act without the participation of the delinquent party.

Chayie Sieger says that she was never given proper notification of the proceeding or sufficient time to respond.

Lewin has argued in court that Sieger’s lawsuit against the rabbis should be thrown out because it violates the separation of church and state. “This whole debate is over something that only matters to religious people,” he says.


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