By Larry Gordon
If you are involved in a business dispute or perhaps a divorce, do you go to a civil court, or do you take the case to Jewish rabbinical court?
Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann is the director of the Beth Din of America, a legal body functioning according to the strictures of halachah. The beis din was once a division of the Rabbinical Council of America, but became independent years ago to show its ability to serve all elements of diverse Torah communities.
“Taking a case to beis din is about participating in dispute resolution and seeking an amicable settlement or conclusion to cases without getting bogged down in the legal bureaucracy of the court system,” says Rabbi Weissmann, who met with me in my Cedarhurst office the day after Pesach.
We discussed why there seems to be a preference to take cases to court. Is it a lack of confidence about adjudicating a case in a beis din? That may be so in some cases, but when it comes to the matter of gittin, or divorce, the beis din is obviously the only forum where petitioners can receive an acceptable halachic conclusion to an unsuccessful marriage.
On the matter of divorce, Rabbi Weissmann says that the goal is to achieve an amicable resolution; the key components are considering the best interests of children involved and addressing financial considerations of both parties.
I suggest to Rabbi Weissman that when goodwill or cooperation between the parties is unattainable, a beis din does not have the teeth to properly resolve the situation.
To that Rabbi Weissmann says that beis din works as a dispute-resolution or binding-arbitration agency with agreements signed by both participating parties that can be enforced by a court of law. On that basis, one can conclude that as long as beis din requires civil law to provide the rabbinical courts with strength, it is not really that strong or properly respected.
But the rabbi says that is not the case. We live in the United States, and we live by the law, though we may have a preference to iron out our disputes within the four cubits of halachah, which can be a beautiful thing.
There is no doubt, Rabbi Weissmann says, that his beis din is involved in some complex business disputes in which they reach out for the advice of experts who specialize in various aspects of the law. That said, he adds, the most frequent cases brought before beis din deal with Jewish divorce.
These days there is little apprehension of taking business disputes to civil court, but when it comes to Jewish divorce, moving forward with one’s life is not possible without a proper get.
To avoid divorce situations that can stretch over a long period of time, Rabbi Weissmann advocates for halalachic prenuptial agreements.
The prenuptial agreement is used mostly in modern Orthodox circles and is shunned to a great extent by the yeshivish or chareidi world. The crux of the prenup calls on the party delaying the get to be compelled to pay a daily penalty, often set at $150 a day, for as long as the divorce process drags on.
A segment of the frum population does not favor halalachic prenuptial agreements because they appear coercive and counter to the belief that a Jewish divorce must be granted willingly without any outside pressure.
To Rabbi Weissmann, the resistance to the prenup is largely a “cultural objection” rather than halachic, but the attitude does not seem to be changing anytime soon.
The Beth Din of America culls their dayanim, or judges, from a roster of 15 rabbis with varying degrees of expertise depending on the nature of the case. After a case is heard, a decision is usually rendered within a few weeks. The beis din works best when the parties have a legitimate disagreement and both parties make a good faith effort toward resolution.
Rabbi Weissmann, who lives in Passaic, New Jersey, graduated from Yeshiva University and studied commercial real-estate law at Columbia University. He is an amiable young man, easy to converse with, and forthright in his responses to some difficult issues.
Rabbi Weissman is reaching out to frum communities to educate them on the efficacy of the beis din in reaching agreements. If at all possible, beis din is the way to go.