Lander College for Men Holds Second Annual Model Beis Din Competition

Date: March 23, 2015
Teams representing eight U.S. high schools participated in the second annual Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men Model Beis Din competition.
Teams representing eight U.S. high schools participated in the second annual Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men Model Beis Din competition.
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Gabe Kahn
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New York, N.Y. – Consider: A pilot in the Israeli air force is sent on a mission to destroy an enemy platoon. As he is en route and outside the range of communications, the air force learns that the intelligence was flawed and the target is actually an area populated by civilians.

According to Jewish law, is the air force permitted—or even obligated—to shoot down its own plane, sacrificing the pilot for the sake of the civilians?

This question, based on a tragic, real-life scenario, was put to  students from eight U.S. high schools who squared off in the second annual Beis Medrash L’Talmud-Lander College for Men (LCM) Model Beis Din competition. The cutting-edge tournament invited teams to the Kew Gardens Hills campus to match wits on the ramifications of this complex halachic quandary.

“The Model Beis Din was an exciting and creative way of demonstrating the dynamic nature of halacha—how the Torah can inform and confront moral and legal challenges in the most sophisticated way,” said Rabbi HaRav Yonason Sacks shlita, esteemed Rosh HaYeshiva of the Beis Medrash L’Talmud. “I was quite impressed with the caliber of the students’ presentations. They were creative and articulate and reflected a thorough knowledge of many mekoros. I am confident that they found this forum to be a most enriching experience.”

The winning team, for the second straight year, was the Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC) in Teaneck, New Jersey. Yeshivat Shaare Torah in Brooklyn, New York and Yeshiva Ohr Yisrael of Atlanta, Georgia placed in second and third place, respectively. Students from Rambam Mesivta in Lawrence, N.Y., last year’s second-place winner; Mesivta Ateres Yaakov in Lawrence; Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC); Ma’or Yeshiva High School in Long Branch, N.J.; and Cooper Yeshiva High School of Memphis, Tennessee also participated.

Each high school received the details of the scenario in January, along with a packet of relevant halachic sources to consider for their arguments. A rabbinic faculty member for each school served as an advisor for their teams.

“Our goal is to teach the talmidim how their learning is applied to real-life moral issues,” according to Dr. Moshe Sokol, dean of LCM. “The learning and preparation for this program sharpens the student’s thinking and deepens their appreciation for the depth and wisdom of our Torah.”

The first round of the competition was a debate format, each team assigned to argue one position—either supporting or forbidding shooting down the plane—against another school in front of five “judges” from the Beis Medrash L’Talmud—Rabbi Dovid Mirsky, Rabbi Chaim Kirschenbaum, Rabbi Ephraim Tanenbaum, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus and Rabbi Sacks. After this debate each team was matched up against a new school, this time arguing the opposite position.  In the second round individual teams presented their arguments for what they believed to be the correct decision to the judges, who questioned the students as to how they arrived at this conclusion.

Because the matter is subject to debate, the winners were chosen based on the quality of the presentations and their mastery of the different opinions and Talmudic sources as related to this case, and based on how well they supported their findings. The objective of the program was not to train the students in psak (deciding) halacha—this requires a seasoned halachik expert. Rather,thisinnovative event was meant to encourage all of the participants to engage in halachik and talmudic debate as a means to express timeless Torah thought and ideals in our daily contemporary lives. Considering the passion and energy displayed by the participants, their rebbeim and the spectators in the audience, the goal of the program was inestimably achieved.    

“It was apparent from the outset that the students and their advisors gave careful consideration to the question and spent countless hours to prepare their arguments,” said Rabbi Josh Sturm, LCM’s coordinator of admissions and the co-organizer of the competition. “Not only were they able to successfully defend their positions, but some even managed to bring up new points for our judges to consider.”

For the second portion of the program, Rabbi Sturm provided the schools with another real-life case to consider, which relied on the same sources as the scenario with the fighter pilot: The ropes for two paratroopers in mid jump become entangled. As taking no action would result in certain death for them both, are either of the paratroopers permitted—or again, obligated—to cut his lines to save his own life at the expense of the other? Each team was given an hour to prepare their arguments, which they then presented to the judges. After the aggregate scores were tallied, TABC edged out Shaare Torah in one final debate in front of the judges and the remaining participants.

“What struck me was that the students’ enthusiasm wasn’t limited to the debates or the meetings with the judges,” said Rabbi Ariel Kopitnikoff, director of student life at LCM and co-coordinator of the Model Beis Din. “Even after the final round several groups of students huddled together to continue the discussion.”

Students from TABC, Shaare Torah and Ohr Yisrael were awarded plaques and sforim. In addition, just before the results were announced, LCM dean Dr. Moshe Sokol revealed that each member of the three first-place teams who is accepted and matriculates to LCM will receive a $2,500 scholarship. All participants received a copy of Rabbi Sacks’ commentary on the Haggadah and a Lander college for Men duffel bag.