A Review of Rabbinic Authority: The Vision and the Reality

RabbinicAuthorityWeb1Rabbinic Authority: The Vision and the Reality (Jerusalem: Urim) introduces the English-speaking public to the scope of rabbinic authority in general and the workings of the institution of the beit din (Jewish arbitration) in particular.

In this work, R’ A. Yehuda (Ronnie) Warburg presents ten rulings in cases of Jewish family law and civil law that he handed down as a member of a beit din panel. In each decision, as a dayan (rabbinical court judge), he offers a rendition of the facts of the case, followed by claims of the tovea (plaintiff), the reply of the nitva (defendant), and any counterclaims. Subsequently, there is a discussion of the halachic issues emerging from the parties’ respective claims and counterclaims, followed by the decision rendered by the beit din panel. To preserve the confidentiality of the parties involved in these cases, all names have been changed, and some facts have been changed or deleted.

These piskei din (decisions) touch on issues of employment termination, tenure rights and severance pay, rabbinic contracts, self-dealing in the not-for-profit boardroom, real-estate brokerage commission, drafting a halachic will, a revocable living-trust agreement, the division of marital assets upon divorce, spousal abuse, and a father’s duty to support his estranged children. In short, these cases reflect some of the issues that affect our community.

Among the scenarios that are addressed in the beit din cases are the following: In one case, a wife demands a get (Jewish divorce) because her husband coerces her to have relations with him so frequently that she is left sleepless and exhausted. Consequently, she left the home with their children and seeks spousal and child support from her husband until she receives her get. The husband, citing the Talmud, claims that he is within his rights and that she is not entitled to receive her get.

In another case, a son maintains that his father’s estate should be given to him, rather than his sisters, in accordance with the Torah laws of inheritance. Furthermore, he argues that the alleged last will and testament is forgery. Moreover, given that his father was diagnosed with dementia, the son contends that their father lacked the halachic capacity to execute the will. In reply to their brother’s claims, his sisters argue that the civil will gives each of them an equal share in the estate in accordance with civil law and therefore they should receive whatever their father wanted to give them.

In another incident, a yeshiva sought land to build an additional building. A yeshiva board trustee is the sole owner of a company which owned a plot of land adjacent to the yeshiva. The board member persuaded his real-estate broker to offer the plot to the yeshiva, but neither the board member nor the broker disclosed the board member’s ownership of the company.

Realizing that the yeshiva required additional capital to finance the property purchase, the board member persuaded the board to sell a vacant lot owned by the yeshiva to his nephew. The nephew agreed that should the sale materialize, he would use his political connections to arrange for his uncle’s appointment as a councilman on the municipal board. Again, neither the board member nor his uncle disclosed their familial ties to the yeshiva or the nephew’s offer to his uncle. The yeshiva’s board voted to approve both the purchase of the property and the sale of the yeshiva’s land. After the finalization of the sale, the yeshiva became aware of their board member’s ownership ties to the company as well as the identity of the buyer of their property. In light of the circumstances, the board member was removed from his position. Addressing the facts of the cases and the applicable halacha, the beit din rules on the self-dealing transactions of the board member, the issue of transparency, and requirement of a board to act responsibly and with due diligence.

Finally, a beit din confronts the scenario of a yeshiva that hired a teacher for one year and continued to renew his contract annually. After three years, the yeshiva terminated his employment, due to his stealing funds from the yeshiva. Pursuant to the rulings of R’ Feinstein, R’ Shlomo Z. Auerbach, and R’ Yitzhak Weiss, the teacher claims that once a one-year contract is given, halacha obligates the yeshiva to renew the contract annually except in cases of poor teaching skills or improper behavior. Should the beit din determine that there were grounds for his termination, nonetheless the teacher contends he is entitled to severance benefits. Although the teacher admits that his employment agreement explicitly states that he is not entitled to severance, nevertheless he argues that he originally agreed at the time to waive these benefits because he was a man of financial means. However, since he lost most of his financial assets during the 2008 economic meltdown, he is now in dire straits and in need of these resources. Moreover, since there is a minhag, a prevailing practice in the yeshiva, to award severance, he claims the minhag ought to trump his severance agreement.

Accompanying these presentations is an examination of the notion of mara d’atra, rabbinic authority; the business judgment rule; and an agunah’s ability to recover for the infliction of tza’ar, emotional stress, and boshet devarim, feelings of shame due to her inability to remarry and have children.

Writing the foreword for this work, the late Rabbi Aaron Levine, z’l, notes, “For a number of decades, I have been involved on an ad hoc basis as a dayan . . . In this capacity, I have often crossed paths with R’ Warburg and served together with him on the same judicial panel. In each panel we served on together, R’ Warburg’s outstanding Torah scholarship was always in evidence—scholarship motivated by a perfectionist’s drive to achieve new vistas in advancing truth that stands as the ideal for the halachic-judicial process.”

Since 1999, Rabbi Warburg has served a as a dayan on various battei din panels in the chassidic, Modern Orthodox, Sephardic, and yeshiva communities in the NY–NJ metropolitan area. For over two decades, R’ Warburg has delivered shiurim in Choshen Mishpat and Even HaEzer to Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan’s semichah students. Recently, R’ Warburg filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC (2012) on behalf of the institution of beit din as a vehicle for resolving matters for the American Jewish community.

This review first appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times


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