Originally published in The Lawyer magazine 5:1 (Hilary 1962).
The Beth Din : the Jewish Ecclesiastical Court
Most orthodox Jewish communities of any size have an ecclesiastical court known as the Beth Din (Beth = “house of,” Din = “justice”). It is not within the scope of this largely descriptive article to discuss the theological question of whether, or to what extent, Judaism is a legal religion. It is clear, however, that the idea of Law, in the sense of rules of correct behaviour, looms large in any traditional presentation of the Jewish faith. The Septuagint translation of the word Torah as nomos may be too narrow. It is no doubt true that the Torah (“teaching,” “doctrine,” the name given to the whole body of Jewish theory and practice) embraces more of life than would be normally included under the heading of “Law” but, for all that, there is in Judaism a right and a wrong way of doing most things and the devout Jew will try to obey his God by doing them in the right way. Since matters of right and wrong and frequently complex the Jew will often find himself in a position where he is unable to discover unaided what it is the Torah would have him do. He will then turn to his Rabbi (the word means “teacher” or “master”) not quite as a Catholic will turn to his priest bur rather as an undergraduate will seek the guidance of his tutor. In other words, the authority of the Rabbi stems from his greater proficiency in Jewish learning. There is, in fact, no real division of Jews into priests and laymen. A man holding no official position as a Rabbi may be better informed in Torah matters than many a Rabbi and he will then be perfectly justified in arriving at his own decisions. It is only when a Jew feels himself to be too little informed to decide Jewish law for himself that he consults his Rabbi, the expert in the field. But some complex problems, purely legal ones for instance, require in Jewish law three scholars at least for their solution. Hence the Rabbi must be able to call upon the aid of two other scholars learned in the Law. These three constitute a Beth Din.
Composition of the Court
In ancient Palestine only a fully ordained scholar could serve as a judge. Strictly speaking such a scholar had the right of trying cases on his own though some of the Rabbis tended to discourage it. “Judge not alone, for none may judge alone save One.” The ordination referred to consisted of the “laying on of hands” (Semikha) and it was believed that it went back ultimately to Moses’ appointment of Joshua as his successor (Num. xxvii, 23, Deut. xxxiv, 9). The Palestinian authorities, zealous for the prior claims of the Holy Land, sought successfully to confine Semikha to Palestinian scholars with the result that the institution died out with the decline of Palestinian Jewry. When, at the beginning of the third century, Babylon became the chief centre of Jewish life the Babylonian scholars, great in learning though they were, did not enjoy the status of ordained scholars. The Babylonian courts functioned as courts of “laymen,” acting, as it were, on behalf of their Palestinian colleagues. This has been the procedure in Jewish communities ever since. There is still a token form of ordination but this is no more than an authorisation of a younger scholar by a more mature teacher. Any Rabbi possessing this kind of authorisation (it is this which gives him the title “Rabbi”) can, in turn, authorise others. A student who has familiarised himself with Jewish law will present himself to a Rabbi for examination. On satisfying his examiner the certificate of authorisation will be given to him, in which it will be recorded that he is competent to give decisions in matters of Jewish ritual, marriage and divorce, and in judgments between man and his neighbour. On the receipt of this he becomes a qualified Rabbi and ipso facto becomes eligible to serve as a Dayyan (“Judge”), a member of the Beth Din. It is important to realise that while the certificate of authorisation can only be granted by a Rabbi the appointment of a scholar to serve as a Rabbi or Dayyan is made by the “lay” members of the community who decide to accept him as their authority.
In many communities the Rabbi enjoys greater status and prestige than the Dayyan, the latter being a kind of assistant to the Rabbi whose aid is required for cases where the law demands a minimum of three scholars. In England, however, where there is the office of Chief Rabbi (an office modelled on that of the Bishop in the Anglican Church and for which there is little support in Jewish tradition), a special Beth Din functions as part of the Chief Rabbinate. In Anglo-Jewry, therefore, there has grown a hierarchy of Chief Rabbi, Dayyan and ordinary Rabbi in descending order. The ordinary Rabbi in charge of a congregation will render decisions on the normal religious questions of his flock but will send his people to the Beth Din if their problem is of a complicated nature.
The Functions of the Court
It will help in considering the functions of the Rabbinic Court in dealing with complex questions if we describe the chief matters which come under the jurisdiction of a court like the London Beth Din, the Court of the Chief Rabbi. Typical of these are legal disputes involving lesser or greater sums of money. Thus, on the same day, the court may sit in judgment on a dispute between business men involving thousands of pounds and a minor quarrel in which only a few shillings are at stake. “Let thy judgment on a peruta be as serious in thine eyes as thy judgment on a hundred manehs” is the sound advice of the Talmud to members of the court. The Beth Din is recognised in English law as a court of arbitration. Consequently, before the Beth Din sits, the disputants are requested to sign a document in which they signify their readiness to submit their dispute to the arbitration of the Beth Din and to abide by its decision.
The Beth Din serves also as a divorce court. Nowadays no English Beth Din (in addition to the Court of the Chief Rabbi there is a Beth Din in each of the major provincial centres of Jewish life) will grant a religious divorce until the civil divorce has been granted. This means that the detailed discussions in the Jewish sources on grounds for divorce are of purely academic interest as far as British Jews are concerned. From the religious point of view the civil divorce has no validity in severing the tie created by the religious marriage ceremony. From the standpoint of traditional Judaism the couple are still husband and wife in God’s eyes even after they have received their civil divorce until a special bill of divorcement, known as a Get (lit. “a document”), is written out by hand in Hebrew characters and delivered by the husband into the hands of his wife (Deut. xxiv, 1). Both the writing and the delivery of the Get are supervised by the Beth Din in accordance with the established norms. Similarly, if a Jew dies without issue, his brother and his widow perform the ceremony of “loosing the shoe” (Deut. xxv, 5-10) under the supervision of the Beth Din.
In a modern community the Beth Din assists Jews to observe the dietary laws (Lev. xi, 1-23, Deut. xiv, 3-21) by supervising hotels, restaurants, butchers, bakers and firms manufacturing foodstuffs. When the Beth Din is satisfied that no forbidden matter is contained in the food served or sold, a certificate of fitness will be granted. The manufacture of unleavened bread for the Passover festival (Ex. xii, 15) is similarly supervised. The firms concerned naturally pay a fee to the Beth Din for the supervision. Otherwise the services of the Beth Din are given free of charge. The cost of upkeep of the court is carried by the Jewish community through its various organisations. Many synagogues, for example, help cover the cost by contributing to the Beth Din as part of their seat rentals. Needless to say the services of the court are open to all, whether or not they are contributors.
A prospective convert to Judaism must satisfy the Beth Din as to his willingness to keep the Jewish religion before he can be accepted. The actual conversion ceremony is conducted by the Beth Din. At the present time the vast majority of applications for proselytisation are by people who desire to marry a Jew or a Jewess. The London Beth Din, arguing that Jewish tradition is reluctant to accept ulterior motives for conversion to Judaism, have adopted the policy of discouraging prospective converts. Very severe demands are made of applicants as a test of sincerity. These include a rigorous period of raining in Jewish teaching and a firm promise to live a life of strict religious observance. This policy has certainly reduced the number of successful applications and it is extremely rare to find a man or woman converted to the Jewish faith in under three of four years. Furthermore, the children of “mixed” marriages, where the mother is not Jewish (the religion of the father is not material), are treated as original applications for conversion, even though they have been brought up as Jews, and are obliged to submit to the same exceedingly strict demands. It is an open secret that in this the London Beth Din depart from the more lenient procedure adopted by some courts in other lands and that many influential members of the Anglo-Jewish community do not see eye to eye with the Beth Din in this matter despite the high esteem in which the Chief Rabbinate is held in Anglo-Jewry.
Powers of the Court
With the exception of the Jewish courts in the State of Israel, which enjoy state recognition, the Beth Din has no power to enforce the law it administers. The most tragic instance of this is where a husband or wife with no concern for the religious Get refuses to attend the Beth Din for the delivery of a Get, after a civil divorce, in order to spite the religious spouse. Various attempts have been made to grapple with this serious problem so far without conspicuous success. It goes without saying that in such cases the Beth Din will use all the moral powers of coercion it possess, calling upon Rabbis, for instance, to visit and plead with the offending party.
For all its lack of temporal power the Beth Din does enjoy, on the whole, the respect of the Jewish community. relying on this, Rabbinic courts have, from time to time, used their influence to put right various social wrongs. A good illustration of this is the attitude adopted by the courts of Eastern Europe when dealers in fish and meat used to charge exorbitant prices to pious Jews who would be prepared to pay dearly for food bought in honour of the Sabbath. In such a case the Beth Din would proclaim a “vegetarian Sabbath,” i.e., they would order the Jews of the town to do without fish and meat for a week or two and thus bring prices down. The “order” was invariably obeyed. In times of great distress or famine the Beth Din might proclaim a fast with which even Jews not normally so observant would comply. While, like every human institution, the Beth Din has its critics, it is safe to say that there is not much anti-clericalism among Jews who, on the whole, entertain a profound respect for a form of spiritual government which reaches back to antiquity and whose purpose is to further Torah which the Jew has been taught to love.
Authority of the Courts
The Beth Din administers the Law as recorded in the Talmud (finally edited towards the end of the fifth century) and the great Codes based on the Talmud, the most important of which date from the twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Law was kept up to date by successive generations of Jewish lawyers in the Responsa literature, in which replies are given by the more famous jurists on questions dealing with new conditions. For instance, a member of the London Beth Din wrote recently a learned Responsum on whether it is permitted in Jewish law to graft a cornea taken from a corpse onto a living eye. The thousands of new laws found in the various collections of Responsa form the basis for fresh Codes of the Law. In the final analysis, then, the authority for the law administered by the Beth Din is the Talmud; not, it should be noted, the Bible itself but the Bible as interpreted by the Talmud. It follows that only those Jews will repair the Beth Din who accept the authority of the Talmud.
 This is the first in a series of articles on Ecclesiastical Courts.
 The groups such as the Reform and Liberal Jews who reject the Talmud (the record of the debates and discussions on the law which took place in the great Schools of Palestine and Babylon and is, for orthodox Jews, authoritative in matters of faith and practice) either tolerate complete individual freedom of religious expression or set up courts of their own. The Reform congregations of the British Isles have a Beth Din of their own in which Jew law is interpreted with a freer attitude towards its traditional formulation in the Talmud and the Codes. Such a Reform Beth Din is somewhat of a novelty in the Jewish world of today. Its authority is denied by the traditional courts and by the majority of Jews who owe, at least, a nominal allegiance to them.