A new generation of Jewish legal scholars is emerging at the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd.
A team of 11 Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia students earned first place for the second year in a row last month in a Model Beis Din competition hosted by Lander College for Men in New York City.
The Mesivta team faced off against nearly 80 competitors from yeshiva high schools, mostly from New York and New Jersey. The team included students from grades 9 through 12. The format of the competition is similar to a mock trial.
“The teams present each of their arguments, pro and con, during the competition in separate rounds,” said Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, head of Mesivta, an Orthodox high school for boys.
The competition is an opportunity for the students to apply their theoretical skills in Talmud and codes to real-life situations, and to understand how the process unfolds in a Beis Din.
A Beis Din is a rabbinical body summoned to determine Jewish law, Steinberg said. They will sometimes rule on a matter between two parties, and sometimes they rule on a complex matter of Jewish law that may affect individuals or a whole community.
There is one Beis Din in Philadelphia that handles matters such as divorce, conversion and cases involving monetary issues. The parties may have representation or may represent themselves.
“Jewish law engages every dimension of the human experience,” said Moshe Sokol, dean of Lander College. “The complexity of the case led the teams through the intricate paths of sophisticated halachic reasoning.”
The case tournament was about the plight of a widow whose husband was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The couple did not have children, meaning the wife would not be permitted to remarry without chalitzah, the process by which the widow and the brother of her deceased husband may avoid the duty to marry. The soldier’s only brother refused to cooperate, and the case was eventually brought before the highest religious court in Israel.
The students were tasked with assessing the widow’s options from a Jewish legal perspective.
“You really feel the dire circumstances of the individual in this case, since the widow would not be allowed to remarry unless a way was found within Jewish law,” Steinberg said.
The competition included four rounds. The team presented arguments in favor of the widow remarrying without chalitzah, and then presented arguments against the widow remarrying with chalitzah, both as if they were the rabbi making the ruling. Lander rabbis then tested the team on their knowledge of the case and asked them to apply their legal knowledge to similar cases.
“There are volumes written about this case, and we only experienced the tip of the iceberg,” said Shlomo Robbins, 16, a 10th-grader from Elkins Park. He was exposed to several Jewish legal resources and their history as he prepared his argument.
“The coaches told us to put ourselves in the widow’s shoes; we were trying to free someone from a terrible situation through Jewish law,” Robbins said, adding that the Israeli court did permit the widow to remarry without chalitzah.
“A woman not being able to remarry for the rest of her life was a gut-wrenching concept, and this motivated our team, knowing the Jewish community must deal with similar issues when they arise in real life,” said Yosef Niknam 15-years-old, a 10th grade member of the winning team from Merion Station. “No matter what career I choose, I hope religion will continue to play an important role in my life,” he said. Niknam hopes to compete again next year.
The Mesivta team was coached by two volunteers, psychiatrist David Weiss and attorney Rabbi Ephraim Goldfein, Steinberg said.