In downtown Los Angeles, three judges are deciding a case involving tens of millions of dollars and dozens of properties.
The judges aren't dressed in robes or seated behind wooden podiums with a court reporter close at hand. Instead, the three bearded rabbis are sitting in a small conference room at a table piled high with documents they peruse carefully.
It may look unassuming, but a small set of offices that make up the Rabbinical Council of California's (RCC) beit din (rabbinical court) is a mainstay of the Orthodox community.
"It is one of the hallmarks of the Jewish community to have a means of solving issues when they arise according to the Torah, so as to keep the society civil so that there is justice and fairness," said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the beit din. "It is a mitzvah from the Torah that if two Jews have a dispute, they have to go to beit din."
The beit din serves several communal functions. It acts as a legal arbitration panel on financial disputes according to halacha (Jewish law) and California law, administers gets (bills of divorce), ushers Jews-by-choice through the conversion process and eventually decides on their conversion worthiness and convenes hearings in matters of personal status (proving that a person actually is Jewish) or inheritance.
While there are other beit dins in Los Angeles -- such as the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a multidenominational conversion beit din, or the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), which is the court of the Conservative movement -- the RCC is the only one that operates within the strictest, most traditional interpretation of halacha. In financial matters, it is the busiest of the beit dins. It hears between 15-20 cases a year, while the RA so far has heard only one this year.
The beit din is made up of panels of three rabbis who, in addition to their rabbinical ordination, have a rabbinic legal degree of yadin yadin, which means they spent seven to 10 years studying the Choshen Mishpat (Breastplate of Judgment) section of the Shulchan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) and can now act as a judge. (Choshen Mishpat is the most complicated of the four sections of the Shulchan Arukh. It deals with the Jewish laws of financial statutes, torts, damages, contracts, acquisitions, landlord and tenants and loans and claims, among other topics.)
Observant Jews are required by halacha to make the beit din the first port of call in a legal dispute against another Jew. This saves Jews from having to publicly reveal their disputes in a secular court. It also ensures that money matters, like all other matters of Jewish life for observant Jews, will be adjudicated in accordance with halacha.
The beit din operates in conformance with California arbitration statutes and legal codes. Participants sign a binding arbitration agreement, which means the decision the rabbis reach is halachically binding and will be upheld in civil court.
"The beit din is not as formalistic in the presentation of arguments and factual presentations as it would be in civil court, and that allows for a freer exchange of arguments," said Encino attorney Harris L. Cohen, a nonobservant Jew who has had two clients try their cases in the RCC beit din, one involved the purchase of a $1 million business. "Also, a civil court wants to keep all hearsay out, but at a beit din, they want to hear everything, so that opens up the trial to all sorts of issues that you never had to deal with [in civil court]."
There are other differences, too. The beit din charges $400 an hour, and most cases are adjudicated in five to nine hours. Although some people choose to bring lawyers to the case, the less rigid structure of the beit din means that lawyers are not always necessary. This in turn means that trying a case in a beit din is a much cheaper option than civil court, which can cost plaintiffs between $5,000 and $10,000 in legal fees just to enter a plea.
The beit din has no jurisdiction to try criminal cases, and does not award punitive damages.
"Possibly they would be able to get the suit cleaned," said Rabbi Gershon Bess, who sits on the arbitration panel, "but that is about it, because [halachically] a person is responsible for his actions."
High-powered lawyers don't count for much in the downtown conference room.
"There are no theatrics here," Bess said. "A dramatic speaker doesn't help much. We would hope that the issues are just trying to flesh out the truth."
For more information on the Rabbinical Council of California, call (213) 489-8080 or visit www.rccvaad.org .