Whither to Court: Judge or Dayan?

There are many aspects of practicing Family Law in the Jewish State which complicate an area which is already complicated enough. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the frustrations of working in a system where there are parallel tracks – the Beit Din, or Rabbinic Court, and the Family Court. An added complication to this is that there are rabbis who prohibit turning to the secular court, and some of my clients are reluctant, or simply unwilling, to go to Family Court. This can often prejudice them, particularly with regard to property issues, where the Beit Din may rule differently on certain issues than the Family Court.

Because this issue seems to come up more and more, and because I was asked to give a talk to before a local women’s organization, I decided to take the time to explore some of the Jewish sources on this subject.

Disclaimer: This is neither an authoritative or nor an exhaustive discussion of the issue, but rather, an initial tasting of some of the relevant sources, and my own thoughts as to their implications. Anyone who is in a personal quandary about this should consult with a competent authority.

My apologies also to those of you unfamiliar with classical Jewish sources if some of this is incomprehensible, though I’ll do my best to give brief explanations and/or link to further sources.

The earliest sources on this base themselves on the book of Shmot (Exodus) 21:1:

ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם
These are the laws which you shall place before them

The medieval commentator Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki) comments on the verse:

לפניהם ולא לפני עובדי אלילים ואפילו ידעת בדין אחד שהם דנים אותו כדיני ישראל אל תביאהו בערכאות שלהם שהמביא דיני ישראל לפני ארמים מחלל את השם ומיקר שם עבודה זרה להחשיבה.

Before them and not before the gentiles. And even if you know of a particular law that they render the same as Jewish law, [nevertheless] do not bring the matter to their courts for one who brings law cases of Bnei Yisrael before [the courts of] gentiles profanes the Name of G-d and esteems the name of the idols bringing [undue] praise to them (other version: to bring [undue] importance to them)…

The Ramban (Nachmanides) further elucidates, and asks if one is allowed to bring a case before a Jew who is not actually qualified to be a dayan (qualified judge in a beit din), but is a layperson and has been appointed a dayan. This he forbids, but makes stipulates that if two litigants wish to have their case adjudicated by a layperson who is a Jew, they are allowed to do so, and the ruling is binding.

שאינו שופט על פי התורה, והוא הדיוט לזה, שאסור לבא בפניו כשם שאסור לבא לפני הגויים. ואע”פ שידוע שההדיוט הזה יודע שורת הדין וידין לו כהוגן, אבל הוא אסור לשומו דיין ולצעוק לו שיכוף את בעל דינו לדון לפניו, וההדיוט עצמו אסור לדון להם. ואף על פי שהזכירו חכמים שתי הכתות האלה כאחת, יש הפרש ביניהם, שאם רצו שני בעלי הדין לבא לפני ההדיוט שבישראל מותר הוא, ובדקבלום עילויהו דינו דין, אבל לפני הגויים אסורין הם לבא לפניו שידון להם בדיניהם לעולם, ואפילו היו דיניהם כדיננו באותו עניין.

Rambam (Maimonides) rules in Hilchot Sanhedrin, Chapter 26, Rule 7, that one may have recourse to non-Jewish courts under the following circumstances:

רמב”ם בהלכות סנהדרין, פרק כ”ו, ה”ז:
היתה יד העכו”ם תקיפה ובעל דינו אלים ואינו יכול להוציא ממנו בדייני ישראל, יתבענו לדייני ישראל תחלה. אם לא רצה לבוא, נוטל רשות מבית דין ומציל בדיני עכו”ם מיד בעל דינו.

The following procedure should be carried out if the gentiles have a powerful law enforcement system and the opposing litigant is a stubborn and powerful person from whom one cannot expropriate property through the judicial system of the Jewish people. One should summon him before the Jewish judges first. If he did not desire to come, one may receive permission from the court and salvage one’s property from the litigant by having the case tried in a gentile court.

Following these sources, we find in the Shulchan Aruch, that one may only appoint a qualified and sufficiently learned individual as a dayan; even if he is a fine person of many positive qualities, if he does not fulfill the requisite conditions, he may not be appointed as a dayan.

השולחן ערוך, בחו”מ סימן ח’, ה”א (והרמ”א בהגהה):
כל המעמיד דיין שאינו הגון ואינו חכם בחכמת התורה ואינו ראוי להיות דיין, אף על פי שהוא כולו מחמדים ויש בו טובות אחרות, הרי זה שהעמידו עובר בלא תעשה…” הרמ”א שם: הגה: ואסור להעמיד עם הארץ דיין על סמך שישאל כל פעם חכם; ועיירות שאין בהם חכמים הראויים להיות דיינים או שכולם עמי הארץ וצריכים להם דיינים שישפטו ביניהם, שלא ילכו לפני ערכאות של עכו”ם, ממנים הטובים והחכמים שבהם (לדעת אנשי העיר), אף על פי שאינם ראויים לדיינים: וכיוון שיקבלו עליהם בני העיר אין אחד יכול לפוסלן: וכל צבור יכולין לקבל עליהם בית דין שאינם ראויים מן התורה.

The Rama (R. Moshe Isserles) goes on to say something with far-reaching ramifications on the question of whether or not one may have cases adjudicated before a Jewish tribunal, with laypeople sitting in judgment. In his gloss he rules:

…towns which do not have qualified dayanim require someone to adjudicate in order that they not go to the non-Jewish courts. In that case, they should appoint good and wise people according to the opinion of the townspeople, even if they are not qualified to be dayanim. Because the people of the community have accepted them to adjudicate, they may not be disqualified from doing so and any community may constitute such a beit din.

The significance of this ruling is that in circumstances in which there are no qualified judges, the community has the ability – and in fact, the obligation – to appoint lay-judges. There is a power thus vested in them by force of the community empowering them in this fashion.

Prof. Menachem Elon in his magnum opus Jewish Law discusses the phenomenon of lay tribunals and demonstrates that it was fairly widespread in the Jewish diaspora, at least until the period of the Emancipation and the spread of nation-states. The reason such tribunals were allowed – and even encouraged where there were no qualified dayanim – was to ensure that Jewish judicial autonomy was maintained, even if sometimes, the lay tribunals strayed from the strict letter of Jewish law. This was critical in order to preserve cohesiveness, and to protect the community from the oft-hostile non-Jewish world infringing on Jewish autonomy and using the court system to deprive Jews of their rights and properties.

(I don’t have a copy of the English translation of this work, but in the Hebrew, a discussion of this issue can be found in volume three, pp. 1605-1608.)

It seems to me from the research that I did, that in the 20th century, we see a transformation in the views of the rabbinic authorities. By virtue of the fact that there were tribunals of lay-people throughout the diaspora, and by virtue of the authority vested in them by the community, as well as the force of custom (a very strong element in creating binding Jewish law, which I won’t get into here, a fascinating topic of its own) rabbinic authorities did not – by and large – argue against going to secular courts set up in the State of Israel out of the fear that an incorrect ruling by a secular judge would cause an infringement of Jewish Law, a serious problem particularly when dealing with the issue of monetary suits. In the aftermath of the establishment of the state, the primary focus was on the issue of what kind of a state is it we have created.

In other words, if we have managed with heavenly intervention to come back to our Land after 2000 years in exile, why should we import foreign laws – or worse, legislate our own laws – without regard to Jewish Law.

Thus, for example, the Torah giant the Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshayu Karelitz 1878-1953) goes so far as to say that for Jews to agree upon laws that are foreign to Jewish Law is a desecration of the Torah and that it is far worse to adjudicate cases before Jews who have consciously traded Jewish Law for what he refers to as “laws of emptiness”.

Here’s the source:

חזון איש, סנהדרין, סימן ט”ו, סעיף ד:
שהשופט כל דין דין שלפניו לפי הנראה אליו זהו בכלל פשרה, ואין ניכר הדבר שעזבו מקור מים חיים לחצוב בורות ושברים: אבל אם יסכימו על חוקים, הרי הם מחללים את התורה, ועל זה נאמר אשר תשים לפניהם ולא לפני הדיוטות, וכדאיתם בסימן כ”ו. ואין נפקותא בין בא לפני אינם ישראלים ובין ישראל ששופט ע”פ חוקים בדויים: ועוד הדבר יותר מגונה שהמירו את משפטי התורה על משפטי ההבל, ואם יסכימו בני העיר על זה אין בהסכמתם ממש. ואם יכופו על זה, משפטם גזלנותא ועושק ומרימים יד בתורת משה.

One of the other fascinating sources I found was a response by R. Eliezer Waldenberg in his responsa, in which he quotes extensively from a response by R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873-1960), the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, on the issue of going to the civil court in Israel. Spoiler: they are both vehemently opposed.

Here’s the response of Rav Waldenberg: ציץ אליעזר- ערכאות, and for those of you who still look things up in books, this is the source: שו”ת ציץ אליעזר, חלק י”ב סימן פ”ב.

I haven’t really discussed the sources that argue that one is allowed to use the secular court system; these are generally rooted in doctrines of custom, the power of the community to agree upon forms of self-regulations, and the rule of דינא לדמלכותא דינא – the principle that the law of the land has binding force.

The reason I didn’t was because I have learned from a great teacher that one should always push oneself to learn perspectives that make one uncomfortable and challenge our beliefs and behaviors. The other reason was that I felt it important to see the historical development: the origins of the prohibition in the need to protect Jewish community and continuity, which then transmogrifies into a prohibition which is part of the ongoing tension as to what is the nature of the Jewish State. This, even by rabbinic authorities who don’t consider themselves part of the Zionist camp.

What does this mean for the practice of law? In areas other than Family Law, rabbinic authorities who prohibit going directly to the civil court, allow it if one has first called the other party to a hearing in the Beit Din and he or she has refused to cooperate. Alternately, if the other litigant is one who is considered problematic, and there is sincere concern that one will have difficultly enforcing the rulings of the beit din, then one may turn to civil court, but then, only if a Beit Din (or presumably a rabbinic authority) authorizes this. This view we have seen in the Rambam referred to above.

I did have a client who was given this instruction by his rabbi – first go to the Beit Din, and if that doesn’t work, then go to the Family Court. The problem is that this doesn’t work in Family Law. Due to rules of jurisdiction, (without getting into the more nuanced points of the law), once one has started in the Beit Din, one can’t simply move over to the other stream.

Again, because I do not want anyone to see what I write as any kind of halachic guideline, I won’t reiterate on this blog what a number of rabbis have told me personally over the years, when they take the position that one is allowed to adjudicate family matters before the secular system. Sorry if anyone sees that as a cop-out, but that is precisely what I do if a client asks me to point them in the direction of a particular rabbi or rabbinic opinion.

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