According to Rabbi Yisrael Belsky, “It is rare – almost to the point of being nonexistent – that after one listens to a Dayan, one fails to understand what went on in the be[t] din [or] that he was indeed treated fairly.” What are a Dayan and a Bet Din, and who would possibly feel they were treated unfairly are only some of questions the average person listening to Rabbi Belsky might ask. As is well known, alternative dispute resolution provides a variety of forums in which disputes could be resolved outside of typical civil litigation. These range from negotiation, to mediation, to arbitration, and more. This article intends to focus on a particular form of arbitration. One type of arbitration that both includes commercial and non-commercial contexts is religious arbitration, which has been accompanied by its own unique controversies.
Within the Jewish community there exists alternative dispute resolution along the range of possibilities. The type of alternative dispute resolution forum this article intends to focus on is a specific type of religious arbitration found within the Jewish community known as the “Bet Din.” In America and abroad, there are rabbinical courts that serve as binding arbitrations, resolving disputes and religious matters of all kinds. A rabbi serving on such a panel is referred to as a “Dayan” (plural “Dayanim”), which is the Hebrew word for “judge.” Part I of this article will further elucidate the role of the Bet Din as a Jewish forum of alternative dispute resolution.
This article shall also emphasize the relationship of these Jewish religious arbitration panels and the ability of decisions rendered therein to be overturned by secular American courts on the grounds that a litigant faced a religious tribunal which appeared to not have the ability to treat him fairly. The article will focus on some of the most recent examples in which U.S. courts have decided upon challenges to rabbinical court decisions, all of which were decided on the same grounds. The common ground upon which the civil courts decided whether to vacate the arbitration award was based on the lack of impartiality of the rabbinical arbitrators involved. Some of these cases have elicited some controversy within the Jewish community. Part II of this article will focus on the legal ground of impartiality allowing for the vacation by secular courts of rabbinical Bet Din decisions. Part III will then focus on some of these recent civil court cases in which the impartiality of a Bet Din was under review. This will provide clear examples from which the reader can understand how the impartiality standard is used in practice by judges in this context.
A further question that will be analyzed in Part IV of this article is whether impartiality may be an elusive standard in the religious arbitration context. The article emphasizes that there are additional factors to be taken into account by a judge when deciding whether to vacate a Bet Din decision on the grounds of impartiality. Within Part IV, the article argues that there are very strong reasons for deference being shown to a Bet Din arbitration panel. It further proposes that judges should give more consideration as to whether the “impartiality” objection was waived by the complaining party that has moved for the secular courts to overturn the Bet Din, as well as take into consideration when making such a decision the wider communal role of a rabbi that decides to serve as a Dayan.