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Jewish Journal

Secular judge rules against rabbinical court in Torah scrolls case

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 10, 2009 | 2:52 pm

Not among the disputed scrolls

Since her husband died in 2002, Rita Pauker has been fighting to have returned to her a set of four Torah scrolls that Rabbi Norman Pauker left his Sherman Oaks synagogue when he retired in 1994. She achieved a major victory when in January the Beit Din, a rabbinical court, ruled in her favor.

But the scrolls current steward, Rabbi Samuel Ohana, refused to comply, even though he had agreed to the arbitration. Ohana has held that the scrolls belong not to Pauker but the synagogue, Beth Midrash Miskhan Israel.

“He called me in front of his wife,” Ohana told me two years ago, “and he said, `Rabbi, I cannot bear having these Torahs gathering dust in my garage. Take them. Please.’”

Pauker sought to have a secular court confirm the arbitration determined by the Beit Din. But a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled this week to vacate the arbitration award. Why? Because it agreed with Ohana that one of the three rabbis on the Beit Din should have been disqualified. Ohana’s complaint was that Rabbi Nachum Sauer made this comment long before ruling on the case:

“Lending a Torah to a synagogue is a common way Jews fulfill a mitzvah, or a good deed,” said Rabbi Nachum Sauer, who teaches Torah studies at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. “It is on long-term loan to their synagogue, but he still owns it.”

Now, as a journalist, this is a bit awkward. We try to stay out of the stories we are reporting. And, you see, I was the reporter who called Sauer and got that quote.

I had asked him who would own a set of scrolls if they were given to a synagogue for regular use but not officially deeded over. Sauer told the court that his comment was “in response to a general inquiry, and not based on the facts of the instant dispute.”

But the judge ruled: “the fact remains that Rabbi Sauer’s above-cited quotation could create a strong impression in the mind of a reasonable person that the that the matter had been prejudged by him.”

Fair enough. But why then did Rabbi Ohana agree to settle the case before the Beit Din in the first place? After all, Ohana called after my story ran to berate me. Sauer’s comment couldn’t have been a surprise.

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