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The Melbourne Beth Din – This Problem is Fixable

March 15, 2012 – 4:57 pm8 Comments

Can we fix it? Yes we can!

Following his previous article outlining what’s wrong with the Melbourne Beit Din, Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb puts forward some solutions.

The Beth Din (Jewish court) is unique. No other communal institution has anything like its power. My previous post was a personal account of the Kafkaesque nature of dealing with the Melbourne Beth Din. This article is about fixing the problem. And it is fixable.

In terms of Jewish continuity, the Beth Din plays a crucial role in issues of intermarriage and mamzerut.

Mamzerut is the status of someone born to a mother who is still officially married (Jewishly) to another man. If you’re a mamzer, you are excluded from many key areas of Jewish life. If people decide that they cannot deal with the Beth Din and don’t divorce Jewishly, then mamzerut has the potential to become widespread. As mentioned in the previous article the Beth Din only processes 40 divorces a year.

Meanwhile, only 10 converts are currently in the system and we have to wonder how many people are choosing to marry out or leave the Orthodox religious system of their families.

Defenders of the Beth Din will excuse their inefficiency by telling you that the halachic (Jewish legal) work is what makes their job so complicated. These defenders claim that simplification of processes will jeopardise universal recognition of conversions and divorces. This is not necessarily true and evidence that we are dealing with political, not halachic, issues.

Quite recently the Israeli Rabbinate annulled tens of thousands of conversions of Russian Jews. Even though these conversions were conducted by the highly respected Religious-Zionist Rabbi Drukman, for political reasons, these conversions were not deemed kosher enough. There are now thousands of Russians who are accepted as Jews only by some of the Orthodox community. The Israeli public – religious and non-religious – were horrified by this power play, but the Rabbinate’s political power meant that little could be done at the time.

But in reality, this sort of ultra-stringency is unsustainable. The growing rift between Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis and the rest of the Orthodox (and Orthodox affiliated) world creates a high stakes game that could potentially destroy what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. Many religious Jews and their rabbis in Israel are rejecting the authority of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Chief Rabbinate and are finding ways around it.

The Israeli public – both Orthodox and secular – have begun an intense campaign protesting Haredi excesses in many areas, including matters of personal status.

If we are to avoid becoming part of the problem – if we do not wish to be a party to encouraging mamzerut and if we do not wish to actively encourage marrying out and assimilation – we need to begin putting halacha before politics and look at ways to reform a broken system.

After my previous article, I discussed this issue with many people and three dominant possibilities for change emerged.

1) Fix the current Beth Din.

2) Establish a layman’s Beth Din.

3) Establish a visiting international Beth Din

Option 1: Fix the current Beth Din

In order to regain the trust of the public, the current Beth Din requires serious political and bureaucratic reform so that their authority is based on more than just the fear of the alternatives.

These reforms would include -

a) Acknowledging that accusations of insensitivity are far too common and undertake to address this matter.

While I agree that it is impossible that every person will be satisfied with every decision of the the Beth Din – especially considering the highly sensitive nature of its work – such complaints should be far fewer than currently seems to be the case. With the Beth Din adjudicating on only 50 cases per year, we should not be hearing the current number of negative stories.

b) Eliminating its adversarial and threatening atmosphere

During my interview with the Beth Din when I applied to teach converts, they made it quite clear that they expected me to act as a virtual spy for them.

They informed me that if a potential convert was having doubts, my first move should be to inform on the convert. They did not suggest I discuss any such issues with converts themselves or even help them through personal example (for example invite them to stay with me for a full Shabbat and work through the issues involved with that mitzvah).

c) Increasing transparency and fixing its appeals process

The current Beth Din sees no need for its decisions to be fully and clearly explained. If there is a reasonable basis for a decision, they should not fear providing it. The desire to conceal their reasoning only invites suspicion and undermines their credibility.

Whilst it is reasonable for the Dayanim (judges) to preside over halachic decisions (and there is certainly a need for judicial independence),  a means of appealing cultural or political – as opposed to halachic – decisions must exist. It should not be as easily circumvented as it currently is.

d) Addressing the unnecessary concentration of power in the Dayanim

The Dayanim do not only rule on halacha. They also decide on many areas of the administration that have no direct bearing on any halacha.  For example, they decide who will teach converts. This function could be easily be carried out by others and would eliminate an unnecessary concentration – and potential abuse – of power. It would also lighten their workload considerably. This would help their organisation run more efficiently

e) Increasing efficiency

Justice delayed is justice denied. The Beth Din deals with some of the most sensitive aspects of people’s lives. When we talk about inefficiency, we are not talking about the odd lost piece of paper or other minor confusion. Should a test for a convert be delayed a month, that is another month they are stuck in limbo. Often these delays are far longer and this is particularly difficult for women who are of a certain age and want to have children.

f) Reducing costs for converts

A number of converts have told me that the conversion course costs at least $10,000. Are we saying that we only want those with money to consider joining us?

Reducing costs is not complicated. One way is to stop insisting on private tutorials and to allow group lessons. Group lessons are common in other parts of the world as they are a far more cost-effective method of instruction.

g) Making the gett (Jewish divorce) as quick and painless as possible

As it stands at the moment, there are 40 divorces per year being performed by the Beth Din. Estimations by a number of people suggest that at a minimum, considering the Jewish population of Melbourne, that up to 50% of separated couples are choosing not to go to the Beth Din for a Jewish divorce.

Unnecessarily unpleasant and complicated procedures at the Beth Din must not be a reason for people to risk creating situations of mamzerut.

Because the Beth Din places so many politically motivated stringencies in the way of potential converts and divorcees, the current system presents a clear threat to continuity within the Orthodox Melbourne community.

Yet none of what I have suggested above in any way compromises stringent halacha.

In 2002, there was an opportunity to implement these sorts of reforms when the Beth Din was restructured. Those charged with reforming Beth Din failed to do so then, and there is no evidence they would be any more willing now. My experience – and the vast majority of experiences that have come to my attention – is evidence of this.

Option 2: The Layman’s Beth Din

If the current Beth Din cannot be reformed, then the possibility of creating a new one must be examined.

An alternative Beth Din already exists in Melbourne: the Adass Beth Din, so any arguments that a city can not have more than one Beth Din are put to rest by this fact.

Most of us who are looking for a new approach, however, would probably prefer an alternative to the strictly ultra-Orthodox Adass as well.

Within the boundaries of halacha there is no need for rabbis to constitute a Beth Din. For the purposes of conversion and divorce there is only a need for people who are knowledgeable in those areas to preside.

This option is inexpensive and logistically uncomplicated and could be virtually run as a volunteer organisation. It would be open to more of the Orthodox community, and be far more representative  than is currently the case.

It could be set up with structures that would avoid many of the pitfalls of the current Beth Din. The administrative processes could be set up to be more affordable and less cumbersome.

The flaw in this setup will always be a lack of acceptance by the global Orthodox community. While this is a legitimate concern, in Israel and around the world, there is a growing number of Orthodox rabbis and congregations that are more interested in halacha than in politics.

And the current Beth Din’s “good standing” in Israel – this is one of their excuses for their political stringency and other shortcomings – simplifies one bureaucratic area while it complicates and vexes so many others as I have explained above, particularly with regard to continuity.

While the rabbis in Israel control marriage and divorce, they do not have absolute control over people’s rights to make Aliya (immigration to Israel). Today Reform and Conservative conversions are also accepted for the purposes of Aliya.

It is important not to overstate the Israeli Rabbinate’s power.

Option 3: The visiting international Beth Din

Three rabbis with international standing and the requisite qualifications could be brought to Australia to give halachic rulings several times a year.

Funding this initiative would be an issue and it would be logistically more complex than the other options. However, such rabbis would provide significant international recognition of conversions and divorces.

Many of the logistical and cost factors can be dealt with by intelligent use of information technology. There are many instances in which the phone, the internet and Skype are quite acceptable in managing day to day business.

Any administration outside of the halachic rulings can also be done by laymen in Australia, leaving the rabbis to preside only on the final, halachic rulings. This includes administrative issues such as appointing teachers and setting a curriculum.

Considering the current cost pressures on the clients of the Melbourne Beth Din, a visiting international Beth Din may not cost any more than is presently the case.

There may also be people within the community willing to fund this effort, thus taking the financial pressure off the people coming before the Beth Din altogether. This would lead to an increase in the numbers using the Beth Din, with halachicly acceptable outcomes, especially in divorce cases, where it seems many have been avoiding the Beth Din altogether.

Once again, there will be issues with recognition by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, but these issues are not as severe as they might first seem for the reasons stated in Option 2.

Anyone claiming that a rift will be caused by a new Beth Din ignores the current rift that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and the Melbourne Beth Din have already created within the Orthodox world.

They ignore the mamzerim, they ignore the people who desperately wish to convert Orthodox but whose partners feel forced to leave Orthodoxy or marry out, by a system which is clearly broken.

These are only some ideas that I have discussed with a number of people since my last article, but I welcome other comments and further discussion.

May this ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ find a solution that puts compassion above unnecessary stringency and may we finally find a way to put halacha above politics.

 

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8 Comments »

  • TheSadducee says:

    How about we simply revise the conversion processes anyway? – they are merely the result of our people having been beaten twice by the Roman empire and the religious leaders’ desperate desire at the time to avoid antagonising them any further.

  • frosh says:

    Option 2 would seem the most likely option.

    The fact the Beit Din have not yet taken an opportunity to engage in legitimate dialogue on this matter makes me think Option 1 is very unlikely.

    My main concern with Option 3 is that one could get funding, and then suddenly lose funding, and thus be back at square 1. Although, I guess this would depend on how it is funded.

    Option 2,if it could be established, could become a very sustainable addition to the community infrastructure.

  • Yaron says:

    Frosh,
    I agree that option 1 seems very unlikely. The silence of the Beth Din on this issue is deafening. I do not feel that I have been unreasonable in my assessment, yet they seem entirely unwilling to even discuss the issue.

    As for option 2, I agree that it would be the easiest and most cost effective way of doing things, but there is always the need for more legitimacy. Perhaps a hybrid option where one big name is balanced by two locals could be the answer.

  • TheSadducee says:

    Yaron

    I cannot see a hybrid model working – I don’t believe you will get the rabbis to break solidarity amongst themselves over this issue, especially to address people’s sensitivities/hurt feelings.

    Option 1 is unlikely based on what a lot of people are saying – I suspect that you would need a new generation of religious leaders/rabbis or alternatively some means to pressure the existing ones to implement significant reforms.

    Option 2 will have no credibility and besides who could you get on there that will fill everyone’s criteria and/or standards?

    I personally see that as opening up a Pandora’s box of trouble for anyone involved with the current state of feuding/personality conflicts in the community over just about every topic imaginable.

    I think you do need to make some changes – less focus on the “panty police” and more on real issues. Doubt it will happen minus some big changes in thinking though.

  • Yaron says:

    Sadducee,
    Agreed. There are many issues that have been raised over the past few weeks, and most people feel that there is a need for some change. The only dispute is what is needed to change.

    The past two articles have been only the beginning of a discussion that could potentially take any or all three of the solutions. It is only the beginning.

    The response has been overwhelming and has now mostly moved offline with most people expressing a genuine desire to take an active role in this change.

    The current Beth Din has the choice to be involved and at the centre of this reform. With their silence they have shown us that they are completely uninterested.

  • ariel says:

    Why does Option 2 have to be a laymen’s Beit Din?
    Surely there are modern orthodox rabbis who are knowledgeable enough to sit on a beit din?

    At least then legitimacy would be less of an issue.

    And was it the Israeli Rabbinate that annulled Rabbi Druckman’s conversions or was it the Eida Hareidis?

  • Yaron says:

    Ariel,
    It could, if we could find those willing to break ranks in Melbourne and sit on such a Beth Din.

    However, legitimacy is a political issue not a halachic one. I don’t think the people sitting on a new Beth Din would change the response to it by the ‘official’ community.

  • Avigael says:

    Excellent Article. I think you have missed some very important points:
    1. Fixing Current Beth Din

    The figures expressed do not indicate the load. Geirum are thrown out of the program after being drained of hundreds of thousands of dollars drawn over years of fraudulant so called ‘teaching’, plus many other atrocities – most thinking people cannot bear the assault. As the Dayanim themselves say “they can do what they like when they like” the fact that it has NOTHING do with Judaism or conversion is not the issue. Many very good people have been lost to Australian Jewry due to these abominations. The only place one can go in Australia to convert to Judaism and not be totally fleeced /destroyed is Conservative / Reform which costs $700 and takes one year. Many Jews do not bother with Gets given the corruption. They assimilate.

    Both SBD (Sydney Beth Din) and MBD (Melbourne Beth Din)are controlled by Chabad Rabbis as are all of the Rabbinical Councils in Australia. Chabad boast publically that they are now in control of over 50% of the Worlds Orthodox Beth Dins. There is a problem with this:
    They are not Orthodox !
    One only need to go to sites such as Failedmessiah.com or Chabad-mafia.com or youtube to get the latest on their outrageous behaviour which includes gross breaches in Halacha, such as teaching Jews to eat and drink on Yom Kippur and other fasts, teaching the Rebbe is the supreme authority of all the earth, every Jew is to follow his every word, etc. etc. etc. They clearly do not follow Chazal or the codes such as Shulchan Aruch – even though they claim they do, it is increasingly clear that this is not the case. It is understood very clearly in Israel these are a Minium Group (Heretic). Sadly, there is not enough scholarship or backbone in Australia for Rabbis to stand up and declare what they know – Chabad Doctrine is not Judaism. Clearly their Israeli Rabbinate accreditations will also be dealt with.

    This very sad state of affairs is reflected in their bizarre and unacceptable handling of the Office of the Beth Din which has caused very serious damage to people intrusted to their care (similar to the child molestors in schools). The abominations continue and there is a very long list of people outraged over their treatment and the lack of correlation between these people and Halacha. My case against SBD and MBD is yet to come, which will be heard in Jerusalem.

    This has not escaped the attention of the Knesset Ministers, Chief Rabbis Office or the Klal in Israel. Efforts are well underway – the old paradigm of Orthodox is good and Conservative and Reform are bad is completely smashed – resulting in the very well understood fact that ALL Diaspora activity does not meet Halacha. Rightly so too, given the apathy and victim count that has resulted from this disastrous so called ‘Leadership’ that makes donkey’s saddleblankets look good.
    Every Australian Jew should hang their head in shame over this !

    So unless you are prepared to form a group of Rabbonim who understand these issues and show that Halacha can be properly applied, then its most likely that the rulings that No Diaspora Conversion is acceptable and all will have to be done in Israel to have Israeli acceptance. Personally I think this is the only way a proper system can be put in with the proper oversight on preventing the corruption.

    2. Adass Beth Din is a Non-Starter Why? They dont “DO” conversions !!! So much for their commitment to Torah ! They feel that they are exempted from the Mitzvot when they feel like it. Their leader is so old he cannot remember one day from the next,let alone make competent rulings, they use excuses like “I cant speak English” when they certaintly do, etc etc. The Dayanim of Adass are a disaster and do not have proper Derech Eretz let alone Torah – they commonly treat people, especially women like crap ! They refuse to address the Torah issues of the community, and now that I have learnt more I understand why. They dont have the Torah understanding to do so or the will to implement Torah as it needs to be. I spent 3 years in their Kehillah in Melbourne and I can only say I am disgusted at their claim they are a Torah Community. So there goes that one !!!

    I definately think a laymans Beth Din would do far better than what you have already, there are still individual Chachamin such as Rabbi Meir Rabi who are competent enough Halachically (and considered so by Israel Rabbonim) to advise who and how this should go.

    3. International Beth Din.

    I think this is definately the Go for Australia. Why get them to fly thousands of km just to talk? It can be done with online conferencing. Rabbis such as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim of Machon Shilo in Jerusalem should be able to assist in the Jerusalem end set up, and it should all be able to be worked out with satisfaction for all parties.

    Ultimately you must have competent Dayanim to run a proper Halachic Beth Din. Something Australia hasnt experienced to date.

    Beezrat HaShem Australia will have enough Jews who care enough about Torah to form a proper group and leadership, so Judaism in Australia has correct representation for what it is.

    The face of Judaism in Australia up to present has done more to cause Anti-semitism than any benefit. It has to STOP. The question for Australian Jewry is: How did you allow an incompetent Min group to do this level of damage and make Australians a laughing stock?

    Anyone who wants to email me directly is welcome to do so at avigaele@gmail.com . I am interested to help any efforts in Australia to set up an acceptable system from Jerusalem.
    As an Australian Jewess, I am utterly disgusted at what goes on there including my daily reminders of what dealing with Australian Beth Dins has cost me not just monetarily, but in being prevented from being married costing me a family. This is before HaShem’s Court as no earthly court can repay me what the Australian Chabad Rashim have cost me. The costs to my daughter have been too grievous to mention here, this also in HaShems court.

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