Center: John Chasnoff of ACLU and Gail Wechsler of Jewish Community Relations Council of STL

Jews and Muslims united for sharia?

Jewish groups mobilize against anti-sharia bills that would also bar arbitration under Jewish religious law


Justin Elliott
May 6, 2011 10:28PM (UTC)

We're a bit late to this one, but Ron Kampeas of JTA has a fascinating recent piece on fears that anti-sharia initiatives brewing around the country could also threaten observance of traditional Jewish law, or halachah.

You don't hear much about halachah, or rabbinical courts known as beit din, even though both have been a feature of observant American Jewish communities for years.

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But some Jewish groups are now lobbying against anti-sharia bills that have been drafted -- possibly as a way to preempt constitutional challenges -- to bar any and all foreign or religious law in U.S. courts, not just sharia:

“The laws are not identical, but as a general rule they could be interpreted broadly to prevent two Jewish litigants from going to a beit din,” a Jewish religious court, said Abba Cohen, the Washington director of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group. “That would be a terrible infringement on our religious freedom.”

A number of recent beit  din arbitrations that were taken by litigants to civil courts -- on whether a batch of etrogim met kosher standards; on whether a teacher at a yeshiva was rightfully dismissed; and on the ownership of Torah scrolls -- would have no standing under the proposed laws.

A spokesman for the Orthodox Union explained that a prohibition on religious law would be a problem in situations when Jewish law comes up in civil courts:

Such laws "are problematic particularly from the perspective of the Orthodox community -- we have a beit din system, Jews have disputes resolved according to halachah," Diament said. "We don't have our own police force, and the mechanism for having those decisions enforced if they need to be enforced is the way any private arbitration is enforced" -- through contract law in the secular court system.

Some prominent Jewish groups seem to be putting some real lobbying muscle into this issue in state legislatures, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

Sharia, by the way, did not come up in last night's GOP presidential debate.


Justin Elliott

Justin Elliott is a reporter for ProPublica. You can follow him on Twitter @ElliottJustin

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