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The Melbourne Beit Din – Please G-d you will Never Need Them

February 16, 2012 – 11:18 am162 Comments

Three Blind Mice

By Yaron Gottlieb
The Melbourne Beit Din is in an enviable position in the community. We are aware of their presence, but we are glad to ignore their day-to-day actions. Nonetheless most of us have heard of a Beit Din horror story – such stories appear with alarming regularity.

The old Beit Din was closed and revamped due to foul scandals, lack of transparency, and gross abuses of power that left scores in limbo indefinitely. As the ABC reported in 2002, “Melbourne’s Beth Din, or Jewish Court, has been dissolved, and its head Rabbi has resigned, amid accusations of insensitivity, lack of transparency and administrative chaos. The Rabbinical Council of Victoria now has a problem on its hands – not just to reconstitute the Beth Din, but also to rekindle the faith of Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community in its leaders.”

But have things changed? From their own figures, only about 100 people have direct contact with the Beit Din each year (40 divorces and 10 conversions). In a community of over 50,000 that is not many, so this article may not seem relevant to your personal experience of being Jewish…until you need them. Then God help you.

The Beit Din is able to get away with its behaviour because it has a monopoly. All divorces and conversions go through them. People who feel that they’ve been treated unjustly are hesitant to talk about their experiences publicly because they are afraid that their divorces or conversions will be made even more difficult.

And then there is the very novel halachic development of annulling conversions. The threat that a conversion could be rescinded is a new way to keep the convert in limbo even after they have been declared Jewish. No one knows when the axe will fall, so everyone who has dealt with the Beit Din in conversion matters may feel a strong need to stay silent.My experience with the Beit Din was far less horrific than others, but then I did not really need them. I approached the Dayanim – or judges – (Rabbis Mordechai Gutnick, Barber and Kievman) because I wanted to teach converts.

During my interview with with the Dayanim, I thought of Monty Python; I definitely did not expect the Spanish Inquisition.

The questioning began simply enough about my observance of the basic commandments (shabbat, kashrut, and family purity).

Then things took a turn for the surreal and grossly inappropriate. I was asked a question so disgusting, I was rendered temporarily speechless. One of the Dayanim asked me, to whom does my wife send her spotted underpants for investigation when she has irregular menstrual bleeding?

No questions were asked about my honesty in business, nor whether I help the poor or underprivileged. From their questioning, it would seem being a decent, moral human is not important.

After the interview, I heard nothing. After repeated attempts to get an answer, I finally spoke to the secretary. She told me that I was rejected, the reason being that my wife does not cover her hair. When I challenged the board of the Beit Din on that explanation, they told me that:

  1. The secretary had no authority to give me that information;
  2. She would be told off for giving over that information;
  3. The information was wrong; and
  4. The reason would be forthcoming in a letter I would receive shortly.

They were at a loss to explain how the secretary knew of my wife’s head covering practices. Following my numerous requests for an official explanation, I did receive a response. Six months later!

The letter told me there were halachic considerations behind the rejection, but no actual halachic reason was given.

This raises the following points, all of which beg the question, is the new Beit Din so different from the old?

a) Why did this letter take half a year to arrive? And even then only after numerous emails from me? Why aren’t there processes to prevent this happening to others?

b) The Beit Din supposedly has an appeals process, as a nod to transparency. But there has never actually been a successful appeal. This is because an appeal cannot be initiated on halachic issues. In order to block an appeal no actual halacha has to be cited – as happened in my case – the Dayanim only have to say that there is a halachic issue involved. Where things get really Kafkaesque, is that when I attempted to appeal after several months of no response, I was told that I had to remain in limbo since I could not appeal until I had received an answer, leaving me hostage to the Dayanim’s lack of motivation to give me any answer – halachic or not.

c) The Dayanim preside over all elements of the Beit Din. They decide who the teachers are, they decide on the curriculum for converts. In any organisation, the more that power is concentrated without any checks or balances, the more corruptible the process becomes. There is no real role for the Beit Din’s board and the appeals process is window dressing.

d) Does the Beit Din keep records of how many people come to them before escaping to Reform and Conservative to complete their divorce or conversions? How many mamzerim (children born to a mother who is religiously still married to a man other than the child’s father – such children are excluded from many facets of Jewish life) are there in Melbourne due to the Beit Din’s processes? Remember, there are 50,000 Jews in Melbourne and only 40 official Jewish divorces a year.

e) In my rejection letter, it was stated that the form of Judaism taught to converts must be “uncontroversial.” Is every teacher on the Beit Din’s list subject to this criterion? Have the Chabad teachers on the list (who are in the vast majority) been vetted for their views on the Rebbe (is he the Messiah, is he alive, is he God)? Have the teachers been quizzed about their views on the State of Israel? Could there be converts being taught to hate the State?

f) Finally I would ask the Dayanim – you state in your rejection letter that a teacher must have good standing in the community. Following the revelations of Rabbi Freilich in the AJN, would you feel confident in your standing even within the rabbinical community?

The distance between the old Beit Din and the new seems trivial. Where is the increased transparency? Where is the greater responsiveness to the community’s needs?

After so many broken promises that they would respond to my requests for information, I concluded that there are three possibilities: either the Beit Din is dishonest, incompetent, or both.

This is not an article of complaint. It is clear that redress for my experience is not possible. No convert I ever taught could ever receive a fair go after the past few months. This is now about change and improving a broken system. Little can change without significant restructure, which will be the topic of a follow-up article.

Anyone with similar experiences of the Beit Din is welcome to contact me – anonymously if needed. All correspondence will be kept in the strictest confidence unless I’m otherwise instructed. My email address is ycgottlieb at gmail.com

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