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OPINION | Summoned to a 'beit din'
The editorial in the last edition of the Jewish World noted that I and this newspaper were being threatened with a lawsuit, following our coverage of a class action lawsuit against ConAgra Foods/Hebrew National (6-22-12). A company called AER Services, Inc., which does kosher slaughtering at plants in the Midwest, objected to allegations contained in a June 13 story posted on our Web site, and directed their lawyer in Chanhassen to send us a strident letter and a draft copy of a lawsuit. To be clear, we have not been sued.
The initial online version of our story broke the news of the lawsuit alleging that Hebrew National products were not kosher, as the company claims. The story was later picked up by Reuters, AP, JTA, Time Magazine, Drovers Cattle Network (“America’s Beef Business Source”), and virtually all of the Anglo-Jewish press in North America. Jon Stewart even staged a Hebrew National skit, with a hot dog circumcision, on The Daily Show.
After we went to press with our June 22 edition, things got stranger.
Nathan Lewin, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., sent me an e-mail, with an attached “claim letter” to the Beth Din of America, requesting that the group issue a hazmana (summons), to me “and to Minnesota Jewish Media, LLC, which publishes a weekly [sic] newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota, called ‘American Jewish World.’” The letter to the beit din (Hebrew for “house of judgment”), an Orthodox rabbinic tribunal, alleges that Lewin’s client, AER Services, was defamed in an article “published on June 13, 2012, in the print edition” of the AJW. In fact, there was no print edition of this newspaper published on June 13.
So, what’s up with the summons to the beit din (also transliterated as “bet din” or “beth din”)?
First, I should mention that Lewin, of the Lewin & Lewin law firm, also sent out a press release, announcing that he was trying to bring me and the newspaper before the Beth Din of America in New York City. A copy of the press release was sent to the AJW. The crux of Lewin’s argument seems to be that the June 13 article posted to our Web site did not include rebuttals from AER and Triangle K, which does the kosher supervision for Hebrew National. However, the original article did include a response from a ConAgra vice president; AER and Triangle K are not parties to the lawsuit. In the revised story about the Hebrew National lawsuit, which appeared in the AJW’s June 22 print edition, I included fairly voluminous denials from AER and Triangle K, regarding some of the allegations in the lawsuit. Again, this story was fair and balanced, as Fox News would say; and I stand behind the truth of what I wrote.
I will not be appearing before a beit din; but I have done some research on the beit din in Jewish history. Likely, only a small percentage of our readers know about this ancient institution.
As it turns out, the Jewish courts go back to Moses, who “sat as magistrate among the people” (Exodus 18:13). In an interesting conversational passage that follows (Exodus 18:17-23), Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, suggests to him that the demands of this job, weighing disputes from dawn to dusk, are overwhelming. “The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro tells Moses, “you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.”
So, Jethro instructs Moses to find “capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, and let them judge the people at all times.” In other words, delegate authority; let underlings settle minor disputes and bring the big ones to Moses for a decision.
Moses took his father-in-law’s advice, and “went his way to his own land.”
The beit din continued to function in ancient Israel under various sages, as noted in the Talmud. “Toward the middle of the third century, the bet din of the nasi [president or supervisor of the tribunal] gradually lost its importance due to the rise of Jewish scholarship in Babylonia and the increased oppression of Palestinian Jewry under Roman rule,” according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which goes on to note that the beit din “became the stronghold of Jewish autonomy in the Middle Ages, and continued with reduced powers into modern times. It experienced many changes in the various centers of Jewish life in the Diaspora, while retaining the continuity of the principles of talmudic law.”
The 11-page entry on “Bet Din and Judges,” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, goes on to mention that with the emancipation of European Jewry in the modern era, “Jews tended increasingly to resort to the general courts.” Today, in countries where the bet din has survived, “it enjoys the prerogatives only of a court of arbitration whose decisions are generally upheld by the law of the country.”
In some countries, including France and the United Kingdom, the bet din system, “headed by the bet din of the chief rabbi of the country, still plays a central role in Jewish life,” the Encyclopaedia Judaica reports. In Israel, the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem has established an “elaborate network” of rabbinical courts. “The State of Israel has taken over this system, giving the bet din exclusive jurisdiction over the Jewish population in matters of personal status.”
My personal experience with a beit din is limited to the conversion of my eldest son, Jonas, who went to the mikva at Kenesseth Israel in St. Louis Park. A beit din, three Orthodox rabbis, certified that his ceremonial immersion was up to the knocker and he became a Jew. Hopefully, nothing I have written will lead to him losing his Jew card.
In the U.S.A., we don’t have a chief rabbinate, or a state-sanctioned rabbi as is the case in Israel. So, I don’t see any upside in arguing about a Jewish World story before an Orthodox rabbinic tribunal.
This latest act of harassment from an attorney for AER represents a “shoot the messenger” mentality. I didn’t bring the lawsuit against ConAgra/Hebrew National. It remains to be seen whether or not the lawsuit propagates “scurrilous allegations” against the firms involved in kosher slaughter and certification for Hebrew National.
And it is completely outrageous for Lewin to state, in his letter to the Beth Din of America, that when I reported about what AER employees, and former employees, told me, regarding their grievances against the company, I “should have known that these statements were untrue.”
The attorneys for AER Services are engaged in a public relations campaign to paint me as an unscrupulous journalist who has defamed their client. In reality, their public claims that I knowingly made false statements in my stories certainly come much closer to defamation.
© 2012 American Jewish World