Beth Din of America Goes Public
Orthodox ‘Supreme Court’ has begun releasing its rulings to the public
This week, all eyes have been turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already rendered key rulings on privacy and lawful protest, and will soon decide whether Hobby Lobby must comply with the Obama administration’s contraception mandate. But at the same time, another Supreme Court of sorts has been releasing landmarks rulings of its own–the Beth Din of America. The national religious tribunal run by the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest American association of Modern Orthodox rabbis, has just published six of its decisions from recent years, in an effort to demystify the court and advance its transparency.
Based in New York, the Beth Din of America adjudicates everything from religious divorce to commercial arbitration for Jews who voluntarily accept its authority. Like the Supreme Court, it is staffed by elite legal professionals trained in places like Yale Law School. Unlike the Supreme Court, it is also staffed by top Talmudists and Jewish legal experts. The resulting rulings resemble contemporary court opinions, except the only parties are typically Jews and the law applied is Jewish law. Thus, one of the court’s newly released rulings grapples with whether a Jewish Passover resort is required to refund patrons after it served them food acquired on the holiday itself, potentially violating religious law. Another deals with a dispute over the sale of a kosher pizza store.
Traditionally, the court’s rulings in its cases have been kept confidential and released only to the litigants themselves. But this has led to concerns of credibility and sometimes a crisis of public confidence. “Historically, litigants have thought about coming to Beis Din and weren’t really sure, because it’s kind of a closed system,” explained Beth Din director Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann. “You don’t know what to expect, and you don’t know what you’re going to find.” So, to combat this perception problem, the Beth Din has begun releasing its rulings, after obtaining the consent of the original parties involved, and altering sensitive information like names and dates to protect the litigants. The first two decisions were published in 2012, with six more released this week and more to come.
The court hopes that this move will make it a more attractive venue for religious disputants seeking to settle their differences in accordance with Jewish law. “Litigants and their lawyers can now turn to what’s essentially becoming a library of precedent, so they know what to expect and what’s going to happen,” Weissmann said. “The hope is that this will allow people to familiarize themselves with the system, to get comfortable with the Beth Din of America as a forum where disputes are resolved competently and fairly–where there’s an even playing field, and where the decisions that we issue are rational decisions.”
Read the rulings, originally published in the latest issue of The Journal of the Beth Din of America, here.
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