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    The Beth Din & Jewish Law

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the J-wire website on 7 January, 2019 and in the Australian Jewish News on 18 January, 2019.

    The Sydney Beth Din was established in the 19th century by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler. Because none of the original members had rabbinic ordination, the Beth Din had no halachic independence. Conversions had to be approved by London and divorces had to be supervised by Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams of Melbourne, though the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation refused to allow their rabbi to undertake this task.

    When Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen came to the Great Synagogue in 1905 the Beth Din was re-organised under his chairmanship. After he died in 1934 he was briefly succeeded by Rabbi EM Levy. When Rabbi Dr Israel Porush came to Sydney in 1940 he was appointed head of the Beth Din by Chief Rabbi JH Hertz.

    The Beth Din derived its authority from the British chief rabbinate and the rabbis of the major Orthodox congregations were members. After Rabbi Porush, the Av Beth Din was Rabbi Osher Abramson, a halachic decisor of world standing. For a time the Sydney Beth Din was conducted by Rabbi Dr Yehoshua Kemelman, with another Beth Din being conducted by the Yeshiva.

    From the 1990s a joint Beth Din functioned with the involvement of Chabad rabbis. It was decided to manage without an Av Beth Din, directing major matters to halachic experts overseas. At various times we were visited by Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu of the London Beth Din and Dayan Zalman Alony of the Federation of Synagogues who both approved our procedures.

    I joined the Sydney Beth Din in the 1970s at the invitation of Rabbis Porush and Abramson and was a Beth Din member until my retirement in 2005. Before leaving London I had attended sessions of the London Beth Din and gained shimmush (practical experience) of Beth Din procedures. It was awesome to sit with halachic experts in whose hands the theoretical principles of rabbinic study came to life.

    At the Sydney Beth Din our regular agenda was divorces, conversions and adoptions, as well as kashrut and synagogue procedures. Naturally we were pledged to the application of halachah (Jewish law) in all our activities, which included arbitration cases – Dinei Torah – which were made available because of the halachic rule that disputes should be handled internally within the Jewish community.

    The community does not always appreciate that a Beth Din does not impose Orthodoxy on anyone. It is not governed by communal politics but by Jewish legal tradition as laid down in the Bible and Talmud and enshrined in centuries of halachah. Both the Beth Din and the membership of a congregation are duty bound to obey the law of the Torah.

    A congregation that has appointed a rabbi are obligated to follow his decisions. A congregation’s acceptance of the rabbi is a declaration of adherence to his rabbinic authority.

    Though not all congregational rabbis can be members of a Beth Din in a city, they and their congregants need to have confidence in the Beth Din and feel comfortable with their rulings.

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