Was this the way of the ancient Jewish court?


A tendency within leadership of some Orthodox communities to sidestep valid issues in an attempt to mask reality, to compel Jews to follow religious law is a source of tension and often causes harm. 

Double speak has smart people seeing the dilemma, but the sheep among the flock follow blindly and perpetuate a bad situation. Worse, it puts innocent people in harm’s way. 

Rarely is there an issue that highlights the predicament more than the requirement to seek a rabbinical court (Beth Din) to arbitrate a matter between Jewish people.   

Having the pleasure of hearing the case for using a Jewish court by Rabbi Daniel Rapp — by all accounts a knowledgeable and pragmatic member of the Beth Din of America — I understood then the delicate dance some in the Orthodox community perform to get buy-in from their Jewish public. 

Curiously, the presentation was made a few minutes after a friend conveyed a message to me from an acquaintance regarding one of my previous columns on abuse in the Orthodox community. 

He said that I had “chutzpah” (nerve) to air the dirty laundry of the orthodox community.  It is better to keep it under the rug and not try to evolve.

In hearing that absurd remark, my mind was on high alert as Rabbi Rapp began his talk.  He explained the reasons Jews should seek justice through a rabbinical court over secular judiciaries.  At the time of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin was the ancient Jewish court system in the Land of Israel.  Biblical passages in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, as well as in the Talmud, all lend credence to the calling.

Addressing the concerns of an eager audience, Rabbi Rapp, who is also an Associate Dean at Yeshiva University’s Isaac Breuer College and its Beit Medrash program, discussed the quality, the education and the gender diversity of the court he presided over.  He reflected on some of the cases he managed, and offered valid and compelling reasons, among the religious requirement, as to why the Beth Din was crucial and obligatory.  It was a rational analysis for the Beth Din; and for the cost and time advantages of adjudicating cases that are vastly more appealing than that of most secular courts, it may also be wiser.

It was only when the questions from the audience came that the dance became clear.  Well intentioned as he is, Rabbi Rapp was making a universal argument for use of a Beth Din based solely on the model of The Rabbinical Council of America’s Beth Din of America. Not having any real experience with his particular court, the assumptions are that what he said is valid and the BDA makes every attempt to overcome major oppositions to modern uses of such courts, such as inexperienced judges, lack of enforcement and corruption. 

For each of these, the BDA has a sincere answer, and Rabbi Rapp readily admits that the cases they work on are civil in nature, not criminal – leaving the latter for the Jewish decree of “dino dimalchusa dina” (the law of the kingdom is your law).

Yet, it is with those issues where many additional problems arise.  If you go by the book, so to speak, then you must use a Beth Din for cases against another Jew.  Yet, to live in communities where the BDA is not the accepted court, but some other body comprised of men who may not share the worldly view of the judges who serve the RCA’s judiciary, is to leave one wide open to a travesty of justice. 

While the BDA may not hear criminal cases, Rabbi Rapp fully appreciates the possibility that a different Beth Din in other communities will weigh in on criminal issues.  In fact, these have happened in cases of child or sexual abuse in communities like Lakewood, New Jersey and New Square, New York. The BDA judge said that the law of the land in cases like those must apply, implying that one should seek a secular court when needed, but then threw the wrench into the gears with the issue of mesira, or informing secular authorities about the actions of a Jewish person – which is said to be mostly forbidden; hence, the dilemma.

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