If you have a legal problem, you can bring it to the People’s Court. If you have a Jewish legal problem, you can bring it to the Beit Din, a Jewish court of arbitration that rules on everything from Jewish divorce, to dowries and business disputes.
In 1933 Rabbi Samuel Buchler wrote a book about the Beit Din that he had founded 13 years earlier in New York. Cohen Comes First tells the stories of some of the cases that came before Buchler’s Beit Din. In one case a widow was told by the Yaslowitzer Benevolent Association that because they had buried the leg of her late husband after it had been amputated, they would not bury the husband himself, as no member was entitled to two free funerals. In the title case, Mendel Cohen complained to the court that his rights as a Cohen—a member of the priestly family—were not being recognized by his synagogue. The court ultimately ruled that congregational leaders were obligated to recognize Mendel as a Cohen.
Rabbi Buchler’s Beit Din later came under the microscope when it was alleged that he was accepting money to influence decisions. He ended up being acquitted, but the Beit Din was dissolved anyway. His book is a fascinating look at the unusual ways that Jewish law has been considered and enacted in modern times.