February 12, 2008

Religious Courts

The Archbishop of Canterbury's recent mention of the role that Shari'a law might play in Great Britain has aroused considerable controversy, in part because many people did not understand what he said, as Geoff explained. I too would oppose in the strongest terms the general application of Shari'a law. This does not mean, however, that voluntary recourse to Shari'a law ought not to be permitted to those who wish to avail themselves of it. This is really no different from the use of other alternative means of dispute resolution, such as arbitration. In fact, there is precedent for the use of religious courts in the United States for the resolution of non-religious disputes.

My grandfather was a diamond trader, that is, someone who traded uncut gem quality diamonds. Many years ago he took me to the diamond exchange in New York. (The other major exchanges are in Antwerp, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv.) When you got out of the elevator, you found yourself flanked by armed guards. The actual trading floor was sealed by a heavy steel door, which was opened electronically by a guard who looked through a bulletproof glass window to the side. There were no ID cards or biometrics: if he didn't recognize you, he didn't let you in.

Once inside, the trading floor was something of a letdown. It looked like a school cafeteria, just a big room with a bunch of bland tables and chairs. I don't recall seeing any women. Most of the traders were Jewish, many of them Hasidim, so there were quite a few black coats and hats. The dominant language was Yiddish, though one also heard snatches of Hebrew, Flemish, French, and English.

The traders circulate from table to table, telling each other what they have or what they are looking for. If one trader has something of interest to another, he takes out the briefke ( a folded paper that forms a sort of envelope) containing them and hands it to the other trader, who spreads it out on the table and inspects the stones. If he is interested, they negotiate. If a deal is reached, they shake hands and the buyer keeps the briefke. No contract is signed, no receipt made out; no money changes hands.

This system works because everybody knows everybody else. If you cheat, you cheat only once, because the word will get around and no one will deal with you again. Nonetheless, disputes do occasionally arise. It is of course possible to take such disputes to the civil courts, but that is unusual. Most disputes among diamond traders are settled by the Beth Din בית דין, the Jewish court. Since the Beth Din has a reputation for fairness, is familiar with the diamond trade, and is faster than the civil courts, even non-Jews often agree to have it adjudicate their disputes. This has not led to the imposition of Jewish law or the breakdown of the separation of church and state.

Posted by Bill Poser at February 12, 2008 09:52 PM