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Shabbat Parashat R'ei 5774

Ask the Rabbi: Going to the Courts Where There Is No Beit Din

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: I am a lawyer in a country with a small Jewish population, in which when we need a din Torah, we fly someone in from another country. A Jew who is suing another Jew asked me to represent him, and the dispute is on a modest amount of money, which is less than the cost of bringing a beit din. May we sue in non-Jewish courts?

 

Answer: Although we respect and value local governmental courts (see Avot 3:2), Jews are required to seek adjudication specifically in a beit din (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 26). There are two main rationales for this halacha: 1. It is wrong for the incorrect litigant, from the perspective of Torah law, to win the case. 2) Seeking a different system of justice is a severe affront to the Torah’s pertinence in the critical realm of justice (see Beit Yosef, CM 26; S’ma 26:4).

Factor #1 does not apply if the two sides agree to go before the non-Jewish court, as they can decide on other forms of dispute resolution, e.g., mediation, flipping a coin … However, factor #2 is still a problem. If adjudicating in a beit din is unfeasible, then factor #2 should not be a problem because one is not rejecting Torah justice but is just dealing with a situation where it is not an option. Indeed, the gemara talks about adjudication before unknowledgeable Jews when no local Jews are capable of functioning as a proper beit din (Sanhedrin 23a, adopted by the Rashba, cited in Beit Yosef, CM 8). The implication is that this is preferable to going to the local non-Jewish court. On the other hand, there is room to argue that this was based on an assumption, which is not as prevalent in our days as in the past, that the courts were a corrupt and a dangerous place for Jews and the Jewish community (see Rashba, Shut II:290). 

What does one do when a city has no Jewish tribunal at all? The Rama (CM 14:1) says that this is grounds for going to another city from the one in which the case should have been heard. However, as the discussion above implies, out-of town alternatives may be deemed practically unfeasible.

Most poskim posit that when there is no beit din that can adjudicate, it is permissible to go before a non-Jewish court (Chukot Hachayim (Palagi) 6). The Rivash (216) implies this. The Shulchan Aruch (CM 61:6) says that although a contractual stipulation does not allow a lender to make payment from a borrower’s property without involvement of beit din, he may do so if he cannot find a beit din to adjudicate. The Maharikash (Erech Lechem, ad loc.) broadens this concept to allowing a Jew to sue in non-Jewish court when a local beit din is unwilling to hear the case. There is discussion about the conditions under which such action is justified (see Chukot Hachayim ibid.) and on whether a beit din must at least grant permission, but in cases where there is no alternative, it is permitted to go to the courts.

Spending more money on transportation than the claim warrants is one such case (see Sanhedrin 31b). On the other hand, there are often reasonable alternatives. Mediation and non-judicial arbitration are often good ideas in any case. Nowadays, there are recognized batei din which will adjudicate via video-conferencing, as our beit din has done successfully. While a standard hearing is more effective, we find precedents for compromising effectiveness in a case of need. For example, when one side wants to go to an expert regional beit din and the other prefers a local lower-level one, they adjudicate locally, and the beit din sends questions to experts (ibid.; Shulchan Aruch, CM 14:1).

We suggest that your plaintiff propose one of the above alternatives. If the other side rejects them, it is like any case in which the defendant refuses to submit to beit din and beit din grants permission to go to court. It would be legitimate for the plaintiff to refuse to offer one of these options if he truly believes that they will take away from his right for justice. In any case, it would be permitted for you to represent him as a lawyer in court.

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