Rabbi must pay woman $23,000 for harassment

The Palais de Justice in Montreal (Wikimedia Commons/Jean Gagnon photo)

A Montreal rabbi has been ordered to pay $23,000 to a woman who claimed he harassed her for years about her divorce.

In a civil suit brought by Aviva Engel, Quebec court Judge Éric Dufour found that Rabbi Shalom Spira had overstepped the freedom of religion in pursuing her over more than 10 years through dozens of verbal and written messages.

Initially, he tried to convince Engel, a former neighbour, not to divorce her husband and, later, that the get he gave her was not valid under Jewish law because, according to Rabbi Spira, it had not been granted willingly.

The Orthodox rabbi, who had been spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Yehouda in Côte St-Luc, Que., was previously found guilty of criminal harassment of Engel, but received a conditional pardon.

The court heard that Rabbi Spira resumed his harassment after that.

He claimed that he was acting on “a divine mission, a divine order” in trying to keep the couple together and later saving Engel from the life of an agunah (chained woman).

Starting in 2004, Rabbi Spira called and wrote repeatedly to Engel including a 71-page letter after the couple had received a civil divorce, which warned her that she was still married according to Judaism.

Engel testified that, from the outset, she told him not to meddle in her personal life. He did stop contacting her between 2006 and 2012, but then resumed.

In September 2015, Engel filed a complaint with the police and Rabbi Spira was charged with criminal harassment. During his trial in November 2016, he underwent a psychiatric evaluation and was declared fit to stand trial.

He was convicted in November 2018, but was granted a pardon with conditions, notably an interdiction against contacting Engel or her family.

After Engel’s ex-husband remarried, Rabbi Spira advised her that she was now in a bigamous marriage and was imprisoned in that former union because her former spouse had not granted her a get, a Jewish divorce decree.

As Dufour’s judgment describes, he even suggested that Engel live with her ex-husband and his new wife and become a “co-spouse” in a “sanctified bigamous family.”

Because her ex-husband had initially refused to give Engel a get, Rabbi Spira held that his eventual consent to the divorce had been made “under constraint” and was therefore invalid.

He went even further, claiming it was his “religious duty” to warn any man Engel saw that he believed she was still married, in his interpretation of Judaism.

Dufour’s judgment states that Rabbi Spira believed that “because, according to his religious convictions, it is better that a man commits suicide than put a married women in an adulterous situation.”

In her civil suit, Engel said that she has lived in fear of Rabbi Spira, particularly his speaking about her personal affairs with others. She noted that at his criminal trial he had maintained that he still believed her divorce was invalid.

She felt that a Sword of Damocles endlessly hung over her head.

Judge Dufour decided her fears are justified.

He wrote: “The freedom of religion is not absolute. (Rabbi Spira) cannot impose his belief or infringe the rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, of others. The right to interpret and live according to religious precepts as he understands them does not confer the right to infringe Mrs. Engel’s sincere religious belief as to the validity of the get that she obtained, or to infringe on her right to live her life with who she chooses, without being denigrated.”