Searching for an Alternative to our Broken Beth Dins
By David Werdiger
Some Australian Rabbis have been in the news a fair bit lately – and unfortunately for all the wrong reasons (although it must be said that popular media sources are hardly chasing puff pieces featuring Rabbis, unlike lehavdil Khalid Mishal). Whether it’s the role they have played in dealing with sexual abuse, or the descent into farce in a couple of current beis din cases, the common denominator is the erosion in the authority of and respect for Rabbis.
There are two instinctive yet opposite reactions to this situation. One is to rush to the defence of our Rabbis and leaders – to claim antisemitic or anti-Orthodox bias, to contextualize ad infinitum, or to think up whatever excuse we can to judge them favourably. The other extreme is to join the wave of criticism and sink in the boot, and there have been no shortage of web sites and online forums that have facilitated just this.
From time to time, this writer has adopted both of these reactions, but with hindsight, there remain huge doubts as to what such activism (positive or negative) has actually achieved. Have our Rabbis and leaders taken criticism to heart and changed? Have they shown that the community defence of their actions is justified? In either case, the facts on the ground sadly point to a resounding “no” to both questions. And when the matter escalates to the point that Rabbis & institutions are attacking and discrediting other Rabbis & institutions, what are regular folk to make of the situation?
Clearly, a fresh approach is needed – after all, the famous definition of insanity, often attributed to Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The foundation of this approach is based on Stephen Covey’s first habit of highly effective people, which to realize that decisions are the primary determining factor for effectiveness in life, and that human beings can take responsibility for choices and the consequences that follow. He explains that the word “responsibility” comes from “the ability to respond”. This is a key distinguishing factor between humans and animals – humans are not ruled by their instincts, but can choose to respond any way they want. This is remarkably similar to the Chassidic principle of “mo’ach shalit al halev” – “the brain/mind rules the heart/emotions”.
Further, Covey explains that we can act in two areas: either in our “circle of concern”, or our “circle of influence”. Our circle of concern is the set of things we may be concerned with: making a living, our children’s upbringing, interest rates, world peace, climate change, how our Rabbis and leaders act, etc. The circle of influence is those things (often a subset of the circle of concern) where we can actually make a difference. I can worry all I like about interest rates, but can I really make a difference? This is a similar approach to the famous saying of the renowned Ruzhiner Rebbe, who used the Talmudic construct of “mimo nafshoch” (that either path leads to the same conclusion) to show that there is never a valid reason to worry. Either you can do something about what you are worrying about, or you can’t. If you can do something about the problem, then don’t waste time worrying – go ahead and do it! And if you can’t do anything about the problem, then worrying does not help, so there is no reason to worry.
Covey concludes that the first habit of highly effective people is to focus their efforts on their “circle of influence” – the things in life that are important, and where they can actually make a difference with their actions. In the case of the diminishing reputation of our Rabbis and leaders, it’s time to accept that these are their problems and not ours (and while you could become a Rabbi, in many communities where this is an issue, leaders are appointed from the top, rather than by the people).
Then back to the original problem – how to deal with resolving disputes when our beth dins have degenerated into almost total dysfunction? This is where it’s time to draw upon a vastly under-utilised community asset: daas baalei batim – loosely translated as “the views of laypeople”. The late Hershel Klein OBM set out to establish a group of experienced and respected community members who would operate a panel for arbitration and dispute resolution within the community. While this specific initiative did not take root, in Sydney there is an organization called the Jewish Arbitration and Mediation Service.
Something along these lines could be setup within our community as an alternative to beis din and certainly to civil court. There are plenty of people with expertise such as lawyers and businesspeople who can apply a mix of law, halacha, cultural sensitivity and good old-fashioned common sense to resolve disputes within an arbitration or mediation framework. It doesn’t take much to make a start.
The lesson is simple: when we find ourselves seemingly trapped in a top-down system with broken leadership structures (or worse) whose only currency is power, wringing our hands and complaining is just a waste of time. A step in the right direction is to establish grassroots support systems that are truly by the people and for the people.