Secular Court Called on To Enforce Beth Din Ruling

By Anthony Weiss

Published May 22, 2008, issue of May 30, 2008.
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A prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi is at the center of a case being taken to secular court on the grounds that his organization ignored the ruling of a rabbinical court in a contract dispute.

A former employee of Ohr Torah Stone, which was founded by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, has filed suit against the organization in New York State Supreme Court to confirm an arbitration ruling by the Beth Din of America, a widely respected rabbinical court run by the largest union of Orthodox rabbis in the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America. The employee, Joshua Karlin, accused Ohr Torah Stone of breach of contract. The Beth Din ruled in Karlin’s favor, ordering Ohr Torah Stone to pay nearly $300,000. But the organization has not paid, and Karlin has turned to the secular courts to confirm the judgment as a possible prelude to a lawsuit to force payment.

The filing sheds light on an unusual area of the law, in which American courts can enforce the result of a Jewish legal ruling. American courts have historically maintained a strict separation between religious and secular law and have rejected attempts to enlist secular courts in religious disputes. But in civil disputes, the courts can and do enforce binding arbitrations of all stripes, including those carried out by a beth din.

“In general, the United States believes in freedom of contract. If you and I agree to conduct ourselves by Jewish law, the courts will require that, not because they believe in Jewish law but because they believe in contracts law,” said Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University School of Law and a member of the Beth Din of America. (He is not involved, or familiar, with this case.)

Riskin is a widely respected Orthodox rabbi. The founder of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, which under his leadership was a leading Modern Orthodox congregation, he moved to the West Bank settlement of Efrat in 1983, where he serves as chief rabbi. He is considered a voice of moderation within the settler movement.

The dispute in question focused on a contract Karlin signed when he agreed to take charge of North American fundraising for Ohr Torah Stone, an educational organization Riskin founded that focuses on leadership and Jewish learning. Though the contract was for two years, Karlin was on the job for less than a week. After a series of disputes with Riskin and other employees, he left. Karlin claims he was fired; Riskin argues that he quit.

After the contract expired, Karlin demanded that Ohr Torah Stone pay him the remainder of the money it promised. The organization refused, and the two agreed to take their case to a beth din. The court they chose was the Beth Din of America.

The court ruled in Karlin’s favor in October of last year and ordered Ohr Torah Stone to pay him nearly $300,000. Riskin’s lawyer appealed the decision to the Beth Din of America and was turned down. He subsequently appealed again, a request that, Karlin’s lawyer says, recently has been denied.

Riskin declined to comment on the case, saying that it was still being dealt with by the beth din. Karlin’s lawyer, Anthony Carabba Jr., said that the beth din has completed its ruling, that Riskin has not paid and that it is time to move to secular court.

“Forcing us to resort to a secular court seems absurd to me,” said Carabba, who is not Jewish, in an interview with the Forward. “There’s a system in place for addressing this matter on religious principles. Who better to decide than prominent rabbis?”

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