RCANZ rejects “misguided calls” for Beth Din resignations

December 31, 2018 by Henry Benjamin
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The executive of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand will ignore calls for the resignation of the members of Sydney Beth Din who were found guilty of contempt of court in NSW’s Supreme Court.

Rabbi Ben Elton

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton, the spiritual leader of Sydney’s The Great Synagogue has announced he has resigned from the executive of the RCANZ. Has been the secretary of the organisation until this point and has joined by Rabbi Alon Meltzer from Sydney’s Or Chadash who has also resigned. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry has reacted saying: “It must be emphasised that it is a matter of grave concern that religious leaders of the Jewish community have been found to have engaged in conduct that amounts to criminal contempt. That is simply intolerable.”

The charges were laid following the Beth Din threatened religious sanctions to an observant businessman who refused a summons by the religious court on a commercial dispute. The businessman went to the Supreme Court seeking an injunction against the threat of the sanctions, but Justice Sakar surprised all involved by raising the contempt of court charges against the four rabbis from the Beth Din. They were found guilty.

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, Rabbi Yehoram Ulman, Rabbi Eli Schlanger and Rabbi Michael Chriqui appealed the verdict. Three judges dismissed the appeal with one dissenting. However, the appeal did direct the court to reduce the total fines of $50,000 imposed on the rabbis reduced to $25,000. Rabbi Gutnick is the president of RCANZ.

Rabbi Gutnick is also the president of RCANZ.

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick

There has been no statement from the Sydney Beth Din on seeking leave to appeal to the High Court.

Nevertheless damning statements from Rabbi James Kennard, the principal of Melbourne’s Mount Scopus College and child sexual abuse advocate Manny Waks whose call on the rabbis’ resignation was published in The Guardian paper citing the contempt verdict brought disgrace to the Beth Din.

In a statement released today, the RCANZ announced: “The executive of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and NZ rejects misguided calls for members of the Sydney Beth Din to resign from  Rabbinic positions they hold.

We have examined the issues and taken advice including from senior counsel and there is no legal reason for them to resign but to the contrary, there is a halachic imperative for them to uphold Halachic principles including that requiring Jews to have their disputes resolved in a Beth Din.

The SBD at all times acted in accordance with what it thought was the law and, subject to any appeal they may make, has already undertaken to categorically abide by the NSW appeals court decision. The issues of freedom of religion raised by this matter and in particular in the minority judgement of Justice McColl need careful evaluation and we have confidence in the Sydney Beth Din and its legal team to deal with those issues.”

On Manny Waks Facebook page Benny Forer, the Deputy District Attorney in the Los Angeles County District said that there was no disgrace by the four rabbis.

But the co-CEO of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry issued the following statement: “At the outset, it must be emphasised that it is a matter of grave concern that religious leaders of the Jewish community have been found to have engaged in conduct that amounts to criminal contempt. That is simply intolerable.

The Rabbis have contended that they have merely sought to preserve and uphold traditional Jewish law and that in a country that prides itself on religious freedom they ought to be entitled to do so. However, while the Beth Din (and for that matter, any religious leader) is generally to be commended for upholding the liberty of religious belief and practice, it is entirely inappropriate and indeed injudicious for the Beth Din to seek to impose Jewish law by the threat of serious religious-social sanctions on someone who insists upon having their rights in a commercial dispute determined by the Australian civil court system rather than by the Beth Din. It is one thing to accept that Halacha requires the resolution of commercial disputes between consenting observant Jews to be before Rabbis acting as judges at a Beth Din. It is a very different thing for such Rabbis to exercise a discretionary power to threaten a person who, for whatever reason, chooses not to observe any such tradition. The Supreme Court of New South Wales has now confirmed that such conduct is unlawful, and indeed criminal.”

Unless and until the High Court rules otherwise, the Rabbis should, with unmitigated contrition, now accept the limits of their jurisdiction and that their conduct was inappropriate and indeed unlawful.

This is not, as the Rabbis contend, an attack on religious freedom. As Justice Sackar observed and as the Court of Appeal agreed:

“Whilst there is no doubt religious freedoms are vital and important in a democracy, they must be balanced against every citizen’s right to approach a court or to insist upon a secular court resolving any alleged commercial dispute between citizens……This finding is not a restriction on their religious freedom, it is a restriction in our democracy of any person holding and acting upon the view a civil court is an appropriate place for the determination of commercial disputes between Jews, or for that matter gentiles.”

Rabbi Alon Meltzer

Subject to any decision of the High Court, it is entirely unacceptable for a Beth Din in Australia to take a contrary view and seek to impose its jurisdiction by the threat of religious sanctions on members of the community who do not wish to resolve their commercial disputes with other Jews before a Beth Din. It is, of course, open to any person or relevant entity to agree voluntarily to have their dispute resolved by a nominated tribunal, including a Beth Din. But that must be done in accordance with the mechanisms provided by Australian law, and not be imposed by a Beth Din under the threat of sanctions.

Of equal concern, are the observations of Justice Sackar (undisturbed by the Court of Appeal) that raise grave concerns about the governance and accountability of the Sydney Beth Din to the community. The Court noted that as at January 2015, the ASIC records disclose that the Sydney Beth Din is simply a partnership between its two senior rabbis. Justice Sackar said the Sydney Beth Din “is an organisation that wishes, indeed demands, the respect and reverence from its parishioners and adherents, and yet appears to be a law unto itself”.

It is plain that the Sydney Beth Din lacks adequate governance or accountability structures that might have avoided the present intolerable circumstances. A proper governance review and reform of the Sydney Beth Din is a critical priority for the community. That must happen if the good name and standing of the Sydney Beth Din is to be restored within the Jewish and the wider community.

Indeed, all religious bodies in the Jewish community in Australia should review the adequacy of their mechanisms of governance and accountability in light of these judgments.

The ECAJ has followed the proceedings with deep concern, and will comment further once the time for applying for special leave to appeal to the High Court has expired or alternatively once such an application and, if applicable, such an appeal, has been determined.

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton told J-Wire that his sudden decision to leave the executive of the RCANZ was not sudden at all. He told J-Wire: “I was planning on resigning at the 2018 AGM but it never eventuated. My wife and I had our first child six months ago and I felt it appropriate to reduce some of my communal work to handle family obligations.”

J-Wire requested a comment from Rabbi Meltzer. None has been forthcoming.

Following is the current executive of RCANZ:

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick [President] – NSW

Rabbi Nochum Schapiro [Vice-president] – NSW

Rabbi Yaakov Glasman [Melbourne] – VIC

Rabbi Nir Gurevitch – QLD

Rabbi Shmueli Feldman – ACT

Rabbi Paul Lewin – NSW


7 Responses to “RCANZ rejects “misguided calls” for Beth Din resignations”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    It’s like telling the Catholic Church to change Canon Law…..

  2. David Singer says:

    Must say I am very surprised the ECAJ issued its statement before the Rabbis’ right to appeal to the High Court had expired.

  3. Havi Rubinstein says:

    I am no historian, but as far as I can gather ‘Accountability’, ‘Governance’ and ‘Integrity’ are secular values that emerged from the elightenment, which is also when the term ‘orthodoxy’ came into use. So by definition these standards are incongruent (but not entitely impossible) with autocratic institutions like the Beth Din. For their adherents and regulators the ultimate ‘accountability’ is to God, so there is really no problem with their conduct from their perspective. Hence the apathy from some rabbinc leaders and persistent conviction that it is the misguided secular courts curtailing their ‘religious freedom’, not the other way around.

  4. Gary inberg says:

    Justice Sackar clearly points to a total lack of accountability and transparency of the Sydney Beth Din to the community it serves. And we find that the Beth Din is a business partnership between two of its members. Surely a Beth Din should be a NFP entity accountable to a responsible communal group?

  5. Bruce James Cooke says:

    Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton can’t have it both ways.
    Rabbi Elton should make it clear what he would have done had he not previously decided to resign due to other reasons.
    Fence sitting proved a bad move for Job,resigning in protest was a winning move for Yithro & supporting Pharoah(who was harming Jews) was a fatal move for Bilaam.
    Go figure.

  6. Avigael Cassel says:

    Outrageous as usual. Time to shut down not only Batei Din, but Rabbinical councils also, who are all way out of step with community and Australian standards.

    • John Phillips says:

      Fully agree. The Beth Din sounds and looks like an exclusive boys club, answerable to nobody.

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