The questions covered an even broader range than did the spectrum of topics offered at the Jewish Voices Day of Learning on the role of the beit din, held May 16 at the YM-YWHA of Union County.
One man asked why, if hurting a Jew is described as “poking God in the eye,” Israel still won’t impose the death penalty for terrorists.
A woman asked why a child is deemed innocent of the parents’ sins if they are not married, but is labeled a mamzer for life — as are all his or her descendants — if the parents’ marriage is halachically forbidden.
A parent wanted to know if a child can be disinherited.
“I’ve got more questions now than when I arrived,” one of the attendees said as she left the Y in Union. “I learned a lot, and now I want to learn more.”
That was just fine with the organizers. Gregg Rothstein, who sponsored the event in memory of his late mother, Joanne Rosett Rothstein, said he and his committee had chosen the subject for that very reason — that the ancient Jewish judicial system was something about which most people in the community feel they know very little.
He wanted to give them the chance to learn from those who know a lot, and to his great satisfaction, the people they approached readily agreed to participate. Nine rabbis spoke, starting with Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz, leader of the Jewish Educational Center and head of the Beit Din of Elizabeth.
Teitz said that as far as he knew, the event was a first. “Certainly, there hasn’t been anything like this as far back as I can remember,” he said.
Opening the program, he told the 100-plus attendees that if he had to choose which talks to attend — as they had — he would have trouble. “All the speakers are top quality. This is a rare opportunity to learn from the experts,” he said.
There were three sessions, with six topics to choose from in the first, and seven in the next two.
Some dealt with general issues, such as defining the jurisdiction of religious courts versus secular. Teitz spoke of the Torah injunction that would have Jews seek resolution of disputes only through a Jewish court. When dina d’malhuta dina — the “law of the land” — must take precedence was discussed by Rabbi Yona Reiss, a former director of the Beit Din of America and dean of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Kenneth Auman, professor of Jewish studies at Yeshiva University and religious leader of Young Israel in Flatbush. They said secular law is accepted in matters that involve non-Jews as well as Jews and all must be subject to the same regulations.
Other talks covered monetary matters — like wills and estates and financial litigation — or marital issues — like prenuptial agreements, divorce, and illegitimacy.
Introducing his talk on that last subject, Rabbi Howard Jachter, author and a dayan, or judge, on the Beit Din of Elizabeth, said he believes these days there are more people with the status of mamzeirut — deemed not suitable spouses for Orthodox Jews — than ever before; that, he said, is “a tragedy of enormous proportions.”
He has made it a personal campaign to have as many couples as possible obtain a get, to prevent their subsequent children from falling into that category. “I’m doing this for selfish reasons,” he said; one of his grandchildren might want to marry someone like that.
One of the best attended talks was titled “Bringing Goldman Sachs to a Din Torah.” Rabbi Dovid Grossman of the Bais Havaad of Lakewood and past president of the BDA, didn’t pass judgment on the financial giant now facing civil charges of misleading its clients. He said that coming to a final conclusion wasn’t possible in the time frame available. But he laid out some of the parameters that would be applied were the case to have come before a beit din. Among them would be the question of malicious intent, lost earnings, and guardianship.
The afternoon’s program ended with attendees asking questions of the assembled rabbis. One person asked if the beit din ever authorizes a Jew to turn to a secular tribunal — which it can do on occasion, though it must be in writing. Another asked what happens if a dayan is a member of the community and might have a conflict of interest; the answer was that the panel must be composed of people remote from the dispute.
Perhaps the key question was, “What is the greatest challenge facing the beit din?”
Jachter answered: “the lack of authority.” In cases where a husband refuses to give a get or a wife refuses to receive one, “we are powerless.” For that reason, he said, couples are urged to sign a prenuptial agreement empowering the beit din to settle a dispute should they ever get divorced.