From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
They have received a bad rap over the years, these rabbinic tribunals, the beis din. “They are biased against women; they are biased against men; they favor the poor; they favor the rich and famous.” Charges and countercharges, legitimate gripes in some circumstances, baseless in other instances.
To be sure, the lack of structure and formality in beis din compared to a courtroom is noteworthy. That which passes as evidence in a beis din would never survive an objection in court. The measure of damages, halachic responsibility of a boss, a husband, a wife, and how the role of each parent within the family is viewed by halachah are also in stark contrast to what our courts have promulgated.
Because of this disparity—a disparity some would argue is outdated—the courts in New York have limited some of the power of beis din—for instance, in matrimonial cases. By law, a beis din is not permitted to issue a ruling on the issue of custody, and when they decide child support, they must follow the same guidelines as the courts would.
In general, I have encountered only positive experiences representing clients in beis din, although I have colleagues who report horror stories. To be fair, I have had horror stories in court as well.
But every once in a while, the beis din experience is especially refreshing. I recently represented a litigant who was embroiled in a contract dispute with another businessman. A case that would have cost over $100,000 to litigate in court and would have dragged on for years was resolved in weeks. And like every arbitration hearing, both parties were satisfied on one hand, but also believed they could have or should have fared a bit better.
The refreshing part was not the result or even the hearing itself. What I found uplifting was the fact that two Jewish businessmen consciously and freely decided to forgo the American court system and resolve their differences according to Jewish law. Too many times our not-so-flattering business practices are paraded on full display in public. The decision to resolve such differences “in house” and according to Jewish law is a wonderful affirmation that we still remain the People of the Book.
In this particular case, by opting for beis din instead of New York State Supreme Court, both litigants were limiting the amount of their potential monetary recovery due to the difference between civil law and Jewish law in the calculations of damages.
Both parties understood that allegiance to Jewish law as opposed to secular law surrendered certain rights of recovery, and agreed to be bound by the dictates of our faith. The fact that these two people would proceed down that path instead of engaging in what we see too often—one Jew committing to the utter financial obliteration of another member of our faith—was inspiring. We are still the People of the Book even if in pursuing the “book,” the chapters we read are more difficult than chapters in other books.
Preserving the book has changed over time. Being able to access the Talmud and halachic writings in English has preserved Jewish books and scholarship for our generation. But there was a time where safeguarding our ancient texts had a more ominous subtext.
My uncle Naftali passed away as a very young man. His beautiful wife (my mother’s sister) and two daughters lost their husband and father on Tishah B’Av many, many years ago, when my cousins were teenagers. He was a brilliant Bobover talmid chacham whose apartment in Washington Heights was filled floor to ceiling and corner to corner with sefarim.
I vividly remember visiting him and seeing our ancient texts everywhere a book could fit. When the apartment could not accommodate any more bookshelves, the sefarim were placed in drop-down ceilings.
Many of his sefarim were “survivors” of the Holocaust. In the early 1970s, the Bobover Rebbe sent my uncle to Krakow, Poland, to see if he could find a manuscript of a sefer that had been hidden before the war. My uncle could not find it. But the “sefarim shopping” that he did as a young man immediately after being liberated is eye-popping.
My uncle saw it as a personal mission to rescue holy books that were abandoned during the Holocaust. Sometimes they were found through good old detective work. And sometimes by Divine providence. As a young man, post-liberation, he was wandering the streets in Europe on Friday afternoon in search of a fish store. Shabbos was fast approaching, and a Friday-night meal without fish would be incomplete.
The store owner wrapped the fish in brownish paper and my uncle returned home. As he was unwrapping the fish, he noticed that the paper used to wrap it was paper from holy sefarim.
He tracked down the “supplier” and discovered a treasure trove of sefarim that had been abandoned by Jews fleeing for their lives. This paper supplier would destroy the books and provide the pages to the fish-store owner as “wrapping paper.”
My uncle was able to convince the paper supplier to abandon this practice and search for another source of paper to supply the fish store. In that one encounter, he liberated countless sefarim that later adorned his apartment, his mind, his heart, and his family here in America.
As ArtScroll has been known to proclaim, “The written word is forever.” My Uncle Naftali, zt’l, played a huge role in such endeavors. Not only were our people liberated at the end of the Holocaust, but our status as the “People of the Book” was liberated as well.
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.