About Berel Dov Berkovits, Rabbi and Dayan
From The Times
May 6, 2005
Rabbi Berel Berkovits
Jurist who strove to find legal ways of limiting the damage to women and children in bitterly contested Jewish divorces
June 3, 1949 - April 15, 2005
RABBI Berel Berkovits held the title of dayan, a judge in the Jewish religious courts, and was equally at home in English and Jewish law.
His expertise enabled him to draft the amendment to the 1996 Family Law Act which gives judges discretion to refuse a decree to a divorcing Jewish couple until any issues of Jewish law are cleared up.
He liked to call this the Berkovits amendment. The issues arise because, although they may not realise it at the time, a Jewish couple gets married under a dual system, authorising their union in both English civil and Jewish religious law.
Consequently, in the event of a split, the procedures of both legal systems have to be followed in order to leave no loose ends. In practice, however, the bitter atmosphere of a divorce often means that the couple find the idea of going through a separate procedure at a Jewish court, the Beth Din, too much to swallow — or are unaware of the necessity to do so. But failure to obtain a Jewish divorce, the document known as the get, leads to appalling complications when a remarriage under English law is not recognised in Jewish law.
Berel Berkovits did everything in his power to help couples reach a satisfactory solution. As registrar of the London Beth Din from 1984 to 1990, responsible for questions of Jewish status including conversion, adoption, marriage and divorce, he gave generously of his time and efforts, complaining like many GPs that he just did not have enough time to see to each case properly.
Occasionally miracles happened, as when a long-separated couple who had lost touch with each other independently approached the Beth Din to find the other partner and go through the divorce procedure. (Jewish law requires that both partners are present at a divorce.) But mostly it was a question either of social work, dealing with angry clients, or detective work — tracking down ex-partners who had, to all intents and purposes, disappeared from the face of the earth.
Berkovits’s background was slightly different from both the typical London Jew of his time and the community of refugees from Nazi persecution. His father was a postwar immigrant, fleeing communism. Rabbi David Berkovits had survived the hardships of the Second World War in Romania, in the Transylvanian borderland with Hungary, and still managed to minister to his community. But he feared the threat to religion from communism and fled with his wife and three children.
Five more were born in England, including Berel. The family first settled in Stamford Hill, where Berkovits senior was headmaster of a Jewish school. They moved to Hampstead in 1954 when Berel’s father became minister for nearly 20 years of an outlying synagogue, Shomrei Hadath (Guardians of Knowledge), belonging to the Federation of Synagogues, an organisation planted in the teeming streets of London’s East End.
Shomrei Hadath (usually pronounced Hadass) was an oasis of cultured Orthodox Jewish life, where Central Europeans and more established Anglo-Jewish families provided a rich and lively intellectual mix.
Berel went to nearby Jewish schools, then on to further Jewish studies at Gateshead Yeshivah (seminary), where he was ordained. He followed this with yeshivah courses in Lakewood, New Jersey, and Jerusalem, then took a law degree at the London School of Economics.
His student grant was running out and it was time to earn a living. In 1977 he became a lecturer in the law department of the new private University of Buckingham. He taught, wrote, continued his Jewish studies and settled into marriage. Always restless, he enjoyed decorating his own house and putting up bookshelves.
It was his wife, Zelda, who spotted an advertisement in the Jewish Chronicle for a registrar at the London Beth Din, the rabbinical court of the United Synagogue, the senior British synagogal association headed by the Chief Rabbi (then Lord Jakobovits).
Knowledge of the English and Jewish legal systems was an essential requirement — and Berel Berkovits had that in abundance.
As the divorce rate increased, abuses began to surface in Jewish practice. A Jewish woman whose husband refuses to hand over a get (bill of divorce) faces far greater disadvantages than a Jewish man whose wife refuses to receive a get. The wife cannot remarry; any subsequent union is considered adulterous, and any child of an adulterous union is a mamzer, a bastard, suffering generations-long disenfranchisement in the Jewish community.
The “chained wife” or agunah, unable to remarry, usually because of her former husband’s desire for money or vengeance, became a cause célèbre in the Jewish community.
Many rabbinical minds tried to overcome the problem but ran into one legal block or another. For Berkovits the answer lay in taking advantage of the dual legal system that authorises synagogue marriages in this country: dissolution of marriage in the English courts would depend on a Jewish divorce, if one of the parties so requested.
Although he was criticised by Jewish thinkers and writers, such as the late Chaim Bermant, for trying to find a solution outside the parameters of Jewish law, it was the best solution so far.
The other approach, to which Berkovits contributed, was Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks’s proposal of a pre-nuptial agreement (PNA), requiring both parties to co-operate in Jewish divorce, if need be.
By this time, Berkovits had left the London Beth Din to join the Federation of Synagogues’ Beth Din as a dayan. He had long ago considered a similar concept but realised that it would probably be unenforceable in the courts. However, despite the perennial objection that a wedding was “the wrong time” to think about divorce, the PNA at least had the merit of making young couples think about potential problems.
He died in his sleep during a visit to his widowed mother in Jerusalem. He was still actively working on behalf of his Beth Din and had just carried out an inspection of kosher food production at a factory in Egypt.
He is survived by his wife and four sons.
Rabbi Berel Berkovits, Jewish legal expert and dayan (judge), was born on June 3, 1949. He died on April 15, 2005, aged 55.
Dayan Avrohom Dov (Berel) Berkovits of London zt"l by M Plaut
The English chareidi community and the entire Torah world was stunned by the sudden passing of British Dayan HaRav Avrohom Dov (Berel) Berkovits, who was niftar suddenly last Friday, erev Shabbos parshas Metzoro, 6 Nisan, while visiting in Jerusalem. He was buried the same day on Har Hazeisim near his father, before Shabbos, a special zchus.
HaRav Berkovits, 55, was a dayan in London's Federation of Synagogues Beis Din. HaRav Berkovits learned in Gateshead and Mir yeshivas in England and Eretz Yisroel, respectively. He was also a law lecturer at the University of Buckingham.
Dayan Berkovits was the son of HaRav Moshe Dovid Berkovits zt"l, a rov in Grosswardein in Romania and later in London. His son Berel was in fact born in London. Rav Moshe Dovid learned in the yeshiva of HaRav Yosef Breuer in Frankfurt. His father, in turn, had learned in the Frankfurt yeshiva of HaRav Shlomo Breuer, the youngest son-in-law of HaRav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch zt"l, who became the rov of Frankfurt with the passing of his shver. Dayan Berkovits' grandfather was also a talmid of the Doros Horishonim and of the Shevet Sofer.
On his mother's side, Dayan Berkovits was the grandson of HaRav Yosef Adler, the Turdo rov, who was a senior rov in Romania and later in Yerushalayim. In Eretz Yisroel he was the senior member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in his day. Dayan Berkovits was very close to his grandfather and published his glosses on gemora.
HaRav Berkovits studied in the Gateshead yeshiva, receiving semichoh from HaRav Leib Gurwicz with whom he was very close. He also studied for several years in the Mir yeshiva in Yerushalayim, and was close to HaRav Nochum Partzovits zt"l.
At first, for various personal reasons, he decided to make an academic career in law. After about six years he decided that he would rather make a career in klei kodesh. He became the safra dedayna of the London Beis Din, and some years later he accepted an appointment as dayan of the Beis Din of the Federation of Synagogues, a position he held until his sudden petiroh.
Dayan Berel Berkovits was a great talmid chochom who was blessed with great intellectual talents. He had a very broad familiarity with many areas of Torah. His expertise in non-Jewish law enabled him to understand the potential interaction between Torah law and the Law of the Land, saving the Torah community from serious problems and often making a great kiddush Hashem. All these prodigious abilities were wrapped in a true chalukoh derabbonon, as his honesty and self-effacement were so evident that they were praised by all.
Several years ago there was a proposal that the UK pass a "Get Law" to help agunos, somewhat similar to laws elsewhere. At a special conference on the issue with the rabbinical leaders of the UK, HaRav Berkovits was able to show how the law as formulated may easily lead to negative consequences as the British courts were likely to interpret it. He helped formulate an acceptable version. Even when he did much of the work, he was not insistent on claiming credit, and was just concerned that the results were good.
He was an expert on yichus and gittin and did not spare himself to help others in these areas. In one famous case, much effort was expended to locate a husband who had disappeared without giving a get. Even a detective agency was unable to find him. Somehow, Dayan Berkovits managed to locate him and to secure a get that arrived just in time to save the woman from serious issurim.
In another case, a family had a cloud that shadowed its yichus. In a step that showed his courage and his compassion, Dayan Berkovits said that he would work on the case until he conclusively resolved it, one way or the other. In fact, it took him five years to reach the point that he was able to be fully metaher the family, showing that the suspicion was based on a mistake. He wrote up his decision and received the consent of the gedolei haposkim to his ruling, as he did with many of his psakim.
He gave shiurim in London and elsewhere and was a very popular lecturer. He once began a series on the 613 mitzvos and said that he expected it to take 10 years to complete it.
HaRav Berkovits was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of Torah and his insightful analysis of issues. With his broad experience, he could bring the resources of Torah to bear even on complex modern issues. He was active as a writer in many areas, very often defending the Torah community against those on the outside who attack it. He had the ability to explain what a ben Torah is, even to those who have no firsthand experience.
He had a broad knowledge of the halachic literature and was very thorough when analyzing and writing up cases. A true ben Torah who did not compromise, he was able to speak to people in their own language.
Once he had to travel to India. Later he wrote a series of articles about his experiences there, including his encounters with avodoh zora that still flourishes there, unfortunately. He commented that one can understand the world before Avrohom Ovinu — when avodoh zora was dominant unlike in the West today — by going to India.
Those who knew him recall his amkus and yashrus, in Torah and in all areas of life. He was also a great masmid in learning. These traits were evident to all. During the shivah many of the menachamim told stories of great acts of chesed in which he was involved. Many of these were done with characteristic simplicity and self-effacement, and even the family had not fully appreciated this dimension of his character before, because of his modesty.
HaRav Berkovits was in Jerusalem to visit his mother on the yahrtzeit of his father, which is a day after his passing. He simply did not wake up in the morning, and the exact cause of death is not known.
He is survived by his mother tlct"a, and brothers and sisters, as well as by his wife tlct"a, and four sons, the oldest of whom learns in Lakewood yeshiva of Eretz Yisroel. Another son learns in Gateshead and a third learns in Sunderland. His youngest son is still at home.