A rancorous legal fight over the rightful ownership of four Torahs has spilled from religious to civil courts in Los Angeles, with the widow of one Orthodox rabbi accusing another of stealing scrolls lent to him by her deceased husband.
Once confined to an obscure Jewish legal system, the case of Pauker vs. Ohana is scheduled to go before a Superior Court judge next month, complete with accusations of legal misconduct, forgery and sheer chutzpah.
As the largely private struggle over the sacred scrolls turns into a public brawl, one attorney is trying to disqualify his opposing counsel for allegedly violating professional rules of conduct. The parties also are squabbling over whether the civil case should proceed while a religious court in Israel considers an appeal filed after a Jewish court in Los Angeles ruled in the case.
Jewish legal scholars called the public airing of the case highly unusual, noting the strict confidentiality observed by the religious courts. "Most parties comply with the order of a [rabbinical court] without bothering to have it confirmed," said Rabbi Michael Broyde, an Emory University law professor and a judge with the largest U.S. rabbinical court.
The tug-of-war over the Torahs, now in its seventh year, pits the widow of Norman Pauker, an Orthodox rabbi from North Hollywood who once owned the scrolls, against his former assistant, Rabbi Samuel Ohana.
Rabbi Avrohom Union, executive director of the RCC beit din, confirms that the only appeal it allows is to ask the RCC itself to reconsider — which Sobel did and the RCC declined. Union and the other rabbis involved declined further comment on the unresolved case.
In addition, Broyde — who has no knowledge of this case but was commenting on legal and halachic procedures in general — said appeal is very rarely an option in American law for decisions rendered in binding arbitration.
Broyde says secular courts annul arbitration only when gross misconduct is involved — bribery, blatant bias or if the arbitrator is closely related to a litigant. In addition, a secular court cannot determine whether a Jewish court violated Jewish law and procedure, which is what Sobel claims in his brief.
Sobel is pushing forward, saying the beit din ignored crucial evidence and that beit din judge Rabbi Nachum Sauer, one of the top Orthodox decisors in Los Angeles, should have recused himself from the case because he was quoted in a 2007 Daily News article about the dispute — an article Ohana says he didn’t know about.
Cohen counters that the article was attached to a brief Cohen sent to Ohana two weeks before the case went to the beit din. By signing the arbitration agreement, Cohen says, Ohana agreed to Sauer’s participation.
Whose Torahs Are They?
The beit din’s terse decision in favor of Pauker does not elucidate how it arrived at its conclusions. The hearing was not recorded, but interviews with Pauker, Ohana, their attorneys and other parties paint a picture of the case and its history.
The late Rabbi Pauker, who was previously a rabbi in Brooklyn and at Temple Judea in Los Angeles, purchased a shul from Rabbi Max Leader, opening Valley Congregation Mishkan Israel around 1975. The Orthodox congregation had a small Shabbat minyan — about 40 or so regulars — in a rented location in North Hollywood. Pauker’s High Holy Days services attracted about 400 people and were held at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center until he retired in 1996.