A New York State lower court decision overturning a beis din decision in the case of a rebbe dismissed by a yeshiva is being appealed by the rebbe, and Agudath Israel of America, together with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Torah Umesorah – the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools – have filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the appeal.The appeal does not address the merits of the dispute itself but centers entirely on the fact that the lower court issued a ruling on the matter at all. Since the case had already been adjudicated by a beis din, the Orthodox groups contend, the state court system had no business examining it, much less issuing a ruling, as it did, asserting that the beis din’s decision was “irrational.”
In their brief, the Orthodox groups explain that since the rebbe had brought his complaint before the beis din, and the school had submitted itself to arbitration in that Jewish court, the beis din’s ruling was final. And, by the laws of New York, entirely legal and enforceable. What is more, the brief contends, the state court system, by involving itself in a religious matter – the beis din’s ruling – took a giant, and unlawful, step over the line of church-state separation.
“For the courts to entangle themselves in deciding cases that involve complex matters of Jewish law,” the brief states, “would lead to the very ‘excessive entanglement between government and religion’ that the Establishment Clause was designed to avoid.”
The brief submitted by the Orthodox Jewish organizations argues that the court should not have used secular law to judge a decision that the parties agreed should be based on Jewish law. It explains further that secular courts cannot constitutionally inquire into, much less overturn, decisions based on Jewish law, especially in cases involving religious institutions and fundamentally religious matters.
And the brief notes as well that the lower court’s decision represents a serious threat to the religious autonomy of the beis din, a vital and central religious institution in the Orthodox Jewish community, creating a dangerous precedent that could lead to unconstitutional interference by the civil courts in religious matters.
The Orthodox organizations’ brief takes pains to emphasize that they are not advocating on behalf of either party to the dispute with respect to their underlying claims. But, it states, “We are compelled to offer our views in the case at bar due to our deep concern that the ruling… if upheld, will have ramifications that extend far beyond the specific dispute at hand.” The lower court’s decision, the brief argues, represents a serious threat to the religious autonomy of the beis din as an institution, undermines the integrity of the policies of Torah Umesorah governing the hiring of teachers and creates a precedent that could lead to unconstitutional interference by the civil courts in religious matters.
The Orthodox groups’ brief was drafted principally by an Agudath Israel legal staffer, Chaim Kusnitz, under the direction and guidance of Agudath Israel associate general counsel Rabbi Mordechai Biser.
Rabbi Biser stresses the long-range implications of the lower court decision should it be affirmed by the appellate court. “If the decision is allowed to stand,” he says, “the principle it propounds – that a secular court can vacate an order of a beis din whenever the court believes that that order is at odds with what secular legal principles would dictate – would undermine the ability of New York’s rabbinic courts to hear cases and render decisions.” Each beis din, he adds, would now need to not only apply Jewish law, but would also need to be concerned about how “rational” their decision would appear to secular court judges unfamiliar with Jewish law. Litigants unhappy with the ruling of a beis din, he continues, “would be tempted to go to secular courts to attempt to overturn the religious court’s decision.”
What is more, says Rabbi Biser, some Jewish disputants would be much less likely to go to a beis din in the first place, as is required by halacha. “They would rightly wonder if the beis din’s decision will, in the end, be permitted to stand and be legally enforceable.”