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Court: Defamation Claim Too Entangled in Religion

(CN) - An Orthodox Jewish man's claim that a Jewish newspaper defamed him by mistakenly placing him on a shun list meant to shame husbands into granting their wives a divorce is too mired in religious doctrine to be decided by secular courts, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled.

Yaakov Abdelhak learned in 2004 that his wife, Gabrielle Tito, wanted to divorce him, get custody of their daughters, and not raise them as orthodox Jews.

Still, she asked him to grant her a Get, a divorce in the Orthodox faith, without which she could not marry again and her children from any future marriage would be stigmatized by other Orthodox Jews as being born out of wedlock.

Tito went to the Bais Din of America, a council of rabbis, and they advised Abdelhak to give Tito a Get immediately. She also contacted the Jewish Press of America, which is touted as "the country's largest independent weekly Jewish newspaper."

The Jewish Press allegedly published Abdelhak's name on its Seruv list, which is designed to shame husbands into granting Gets to their wives. When the Bais Din issues a Seruv, the husband is to be shunned by all Orthodox Jews. He can't participate in public prayers or Torah readings and can't be buried in an Orthodox Jewish cemetery.

However, when the Jewish Press contacted the Bais Din, an unnamed staff member (not a rabbi) erroneously told the paper that the Bais Din had issued a Seruv. Instead, the rabbis simply advised Abdelhak to give his wife a Get.

Abdelhak sued the paper, his wife and several others for defamation. The trial court dismissed the case, and Judge Linda Baxter of the appeals court agreed that a secular court was not equipped to handle the religious dispute.

"Unless a jury evaluates these deeply religious questions -- that are limited to the practices and doctrine of the insular Orthodox Jewish community -- the jury would be unable to perform the threshold task of deciding whether the false Seruv listing was even defamatory at all," Baxter wrote.

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