Last week, we introduced the topic of Beit Din offering a written explanation for its rulings. We noted that, unlike the Western model, Halacha does not require Batei Din to explain the reasons for their rulings. We noted, however, two exceptions to this rule: when one of the litigants has a reason to suspect the integrity of the Beit Din and when either party was coerced to adjudicate the dispute before the Beit Din.
This week, we shall present the practice of contemporary Batei Din both in Israel and the United States regarding this issue.
Contemporary Beit Din Practice
It seems that the approach limiting the obligation to present reasons prevailed in the age prior to the twentieth century. Rav Gedalia Schwartz, Av Beit Din (Chief Justice) of the Beth Din of America, told me that it is evident from the Teshuvah literature that in most cases, Beit Din did not articulate the basis for its ruling. He noted that one need only look at classic works of responsa to notice that the Choshen Mishpat sections in these works are much smaller than the other sections. (Teshuvot Avnei Neizer are one example.)
Beginning in the twentieth century, however, things began to change. Sir Herbert Samuel (cited in Professor Eliav Schochetman’s landmark essay on our topic, which appears in Shenaton LeMishpat HaIvri 6-7:355), the first high commissioner of the British Mandate over Eretz Yisrael, pressured the Chief Rabbinate to create rabbinic courts of appeal as a prerequisite for the British authorities recognizing the rulings of the Beit Din. (See our essay, available at www.koltorah.org, for a discussion of this fascinating institution.) Sir Samuel stressed the need to inspire confidence in Beit Din among the Jewish population. The Chief Rabbis at the time of the establishment of Medinat Yisrael, Rav Yitzchak Herzog and Rav Ben Zion Uzziel, responded very positively to this request. Rav Uzziel writes (Teshuvot Mishpetei Uzziel 3 C.M. 1):
There is a greater obligation in our times [for Beit Din to disclose its reasons], since civil courts explain their rulings with proofs to their decisions, and this enhances their reputations in the eyes of the people. Why should we not act similarly to inspire confidence in the eyes of the nation….It is appropriate for all Beit Din decisions, except for conventional and simple cases, to present a summary of the respective arguments of the litigants and the reason for the decision in order to provide the opportunity for appellate court review and to teach Torah law to the nation.
Rav Herzog (cited in Professor Eliav Schochetman’s Seider HaDin p. 370) writes that even the Beit Din HaGadol (the Israeli Supreme Rabbinical Court) should write the basis of its decision, “in order to set an example for others, and, besides, this practice has manifold benefits.”
Indeed, some Israeli rabbinic court decisions have been printed and published in a collection entitled Piskei Din Rabbaniyim. This series is greatly respected and has made a major contribution to the responsa literature. However, in practice, many Israeli Dayanim do not heed the call of Rav Herzog and Rav Uzziel, choosing instead to follow the traditional system of refraining from offering elucidations of their ruling. Indeed, Professor Schochetman (ad. loc.) writes (in 1988), “The facts show that in many cases, they do not include reasons for the decisions they issue.”
In response (in 1999), Rav Tzvi Yehuda Ben Yaakov, a rabbinic judge on the Haifa rabbinic court, renewed the call for explaining the reasoning behind Beit Din decisions. He writes (Techumin 19:234):
In our times, one may assume that all Dayanim are suspected, by the religious public and certainly by the secular public… The broader community suspects that Dayanim do not investigate matters thoroughly and rule based simply on impressions and arbitrary reasoning.
Conclusion – The Practice in America
Rav Ben Yaakov’s call has been heeded among some Dayanim who feel there is a need for Beit Din to inspire confidence in the community to choose Beit Din as the venue to resolve disputes instead of litigating in civil courts, a severe Halachic infraction (see my Gray Matter 2 pp. 164-178). Indeed, a number of American Dayanim often write explanations of their rulings. It should be noted, though, that it is sometimes in the best interests of the parties for the Dayanim to refrain from explaining their decision. Thus, the Beth Din of America’s rules and procedures (available at www.bethdin.org) do not include a requirement that Dayanim present the logic of their ruling. Indeed, I have been informed that even the American Arbitration Association advises that arbitrators refrain from writing explanations of their rulings as it increases the possibility that the arbitrators’ ruling will be reversed by a civil court. It seems, however, that if the parties notify the Beit Din before the hearing that they desire an elucidation of the decision, the Beit Din will, generally speaking, honor that request.