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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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