The New York Post by REUVEN BLAU - August 23, 2009
Rabbis may soon have to answer to a higher authority -- state court judges.
A New York State Supreme Court judge recently overturned a rabbinical-arbitration ruling, angering rabbis who are worried that Jewish justice could be headed for extinction. "If the judgment is affirmed, it would be useless to go to a rabbinic court," said Marc Stern, acting co-executive director and general counsel of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbinical judges who sit on what are called "beth din" courts often handle cases that New York City Jews don't want in the regular judicial system, such as matters involving tax evasion or other illegalities. "That's definitely true in some cases," said Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of the Beth-Din of America. "But by and large, I don't think that's what compels people to come here."
Rabbinical justice is "a lot cheaper, faster and decided by people in your own community," Weissmann said. Also, under Jewish law, religious litigants are actually obligated to initially bring disputes to a beth din rather than secular courts. State and federal courts have long recognized the rulings, which are mainly handled through voluntary binding arbitration. Decisions have been changed or overturned only due to major problems, such as blatant fraud or bias. But in a strongly worded decision, Brooklyn Judge Bruce Balter tossed out a ruling by the Beth-Din of America involving a disagreement between a Jewish elementary school and a veteran teacher.
In a brief filed with the state Court of Appeals, the Orthodox Union argued that Balter's decision violated the First Amendment because it "unconstitutionally interfered with a fundamentally religious dispute." The Talmudic tussle started after the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns & Rockaway fired one of its teachers, Rabbi Nachum Brisman, arguing that his religious philosophy was in conflict with that of the school. Brisman, who had been at the school for more than a decade, countered that he had obtained tenure and was therefore entitled to added job protections. The beth din agreed, ordering the school to reinstate him. But when Brisman brought the case to state court to be confirmed -- a routine step to enforce arbitration awards -- the school persuaded Balter to overturn the beth din ruling. firstname.lastname@example.org