Local high school earned second place in Model Beis Din debate competition in New York.
Imagine this: A 65-year-old man is the primary caregiver for his mentally disabled 39-year-old son, and is, by all accounts, devoted to him. Now the father goes into renal failure, but every effort to find a new kidney fails.
His son, who is physically healthy, would seem to be the ideal donor genetically — but he lacks the ability to give consent to the medical procedure. Can the father give consent on his son’s behalf?
That was the question facing several courts in a landmark Israeli case, which ultimately went all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. It was also one of the complex quandaries debated by students at the third annual Touro College Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men Model Beis Din competition, which took place last month in Queens, N.Y.
The tournament asks budding Torah scholars to consider morally thorny cases — based on real events — within the context of halacha.
First, the students debate one another in front of five judges from the Beis Medrash L’Talmud faculty, then they debate from an opposing point of view and finally they argue the case as a team before the judges, who ask them to account for their reasoning. This year’s Model Beis Din focused on medical ethics, with two cases pertaining to organ donation.
Though the winning team was the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, N.J., the Delaware Valley was well-represented by a second-place finish from the Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia, one of eight schools to compete.
This was Mesivta’s first time entering the competition since the Orthodox boys’ school opened in 2014. Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, who mentored the five sophomores on the team, said the event exceeded his expectations.
“Competition is a great motivator for learning,” he said. “They did tremendous research and extra out-of-class study in clarifying parts of the Talmud and the code. It made them realize the halachic process is very much in their grasp.”
The Mesivta boys started prepping for the tournament months ago, after they first learned they’d be tasked with considering the father/son kidney donation case.
“It’s not a black-and-white case,” Steinberg said, “even within Torah sources.”
“We spent five months preparing the material, so to be able to put it into practice and argue our case made the learning fun and exciting,” said Yaakov Weiss, a Mesivta 10th grader. “We got to say what we thought and show what we know.”
Steinberg is proud that little Mesivta, which only has 30 students total, did so well, given that they were up against older students from much larger schools. He said they’ll enter the contest again next year.
Each team was awarded a certain number of points based on the students’ command of Talmudic sources and of diverging opinions around the topic. They also were also assessed by how well they could substantiate their conclusions — though competition organizers emphasized that the students can’t be expected to decide halachic law.
“That requires a seasoned halachic expert,” said organizer Rabbi Aryeh Manheim, who noted that the competition is more about getting students engaged in halachic and Talmudic debate.
It seems to have worked.
“After everything we did, I feel great. I feel like all the work we did really paid off,” Weiss said.
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