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The session in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court last Tuesday lasted for nearly five hours, behind close doors, but some of the story had been told even before the judge entered the courtroom.

Six of the nine defendants at the session made a point of remaining on their feet until the judge entered the courtroom and not seated like the rest of those present.

This did not stem from respect for the court or for the emblem of the state of Israel behind the empty chair but rather the opposite: The rabbis did not want to accord excessive respect to the "secular" and took care to evade observing the custom of rising to a standing position upon hearing "all rise" as the judge enters the courtroom.

Therefore the defendants remained perpendicular and sat down only after Judge Ehud Schwartz took his seat.

The very fact this session was held is an historical precedent: Several of the top rabbinical court judges from the ultra-Orthodox world had to appear as defendants before an official court of the state of Israel which they regard as a "gentile court."

For the first time, such senior rabbinical court judges are being sued - by ultra-Orthodox plaintiffs at that - and are having to defend rulings they issued at the Bnei Brak Rabbinical Court of Justice (Badatz).

This is one of the highest rabbinical courts and perhaps the most prestigious rabbinical court in the ultra-Orthodox world, both in Israel and abroad.

It is a private body not associated with the courts of the Chief Rabbinate.

The plaintiffs are asking the Tel Aviv court to issue a restraining order in response to threats and harassment.

The background to this request and to the civil suit accompanying it is a private dispute between private individuals.

However, lying in the background is the autonomy of the ultra-Orthodox community's leadership to pass judgment in every dispute, from financial to family matters, according to the law of the Torah and without intervention by the state.

This is a precedent-setting suit, which is shaking up the ultra-Orthodox world and has set not a few on edge.

Predictably the "Lithuanian community" newspaper Yated Ne'eman is among the first to have sounded the alarm against "a phenomenon unprecedented in its gravity."

According to the newspaper, "it is necessary to condemn those who are trying to trample and humiliate rabbinical law and its teachers by means of turning to [secular] instances to invalidate rulings and mediations done according to the religion and the rabbinical law. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism will not rest or be silent until it is made clear to all that these grave deeds have removed them from the community of those who fear the word of God."

Acting like a mafia

"This is terrible desecration of God," said Rabbi Yehuda Silman, the most senior of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical court justices summoned to the Tel Aviv court, before they entered the courtroom.

On one side of the corridor waited supporters and disciples of the rabbinical court judges, and on the other side waited three supporters of the plaintiffs.

"They are acting like a mafia," one of them said of the high rabbinical court judges.

No one disputes that the plaintiffs, Zvi Bialostosky and Eliezer Friedman, have changed the game entirely by filing a civil suit against the secretary of the rabbinical court and against eight rabbinical judges, among them well-regarded rabbis like Silman and Rabbi Mendel Shafran, who were questioned on the stand last week.

According to Bialostosky and Friedman, they are being "persecuted" by the senior rabbinical judges. Friedman has said they filed the civil suit only after receiving backing from two other rabbinical courts. Bialostosky is a well-known Bnei Brak contractor whose name has been associated over the years with top people in Gur Hasidism.

Friedman, a Hasid who lives in Bnei Brak, was a business partner of Bialostosky's son.

A business dispute between the two of them and customers eventually grew into a confrontation with the rabbinical court that deliberated on the dispute in accordance with rabbinical law.

The long story of mutual recriminations culminated in Bialostosky and Friedman suing the rabbinical judges personally for large sums of money they say they had deposited in escrow with the rabbis.

For their part, the rabbinical judges say the two violated decisions that were accorded the validity of court rulings under the Arbitration Law.

The escalation in the dispute came when Bialostosky threatened to turn to the civil courts.

Blacklisted from the community

Even before he did so, the rabbinical judges at the High Rabbinical Court of Justice in Bnei Brak had brought out the big guns against him and Friedman: a protest letter in which they were called "wicked," essentially blacklisting them in the community.

Subsequently a strongly worded letter signed by even more senior leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community was also published against them.

Following the letters came pashkvilim, wall posters, against them as well as harassment and threats on the two and members of their families.

In the wake of this, by means of their attorneys Dr. Haim Misgav, Tom Misgav, Elkana Bishitz and Uri Stendhal, Bialostosky and Friedman filed a request for an order restraining the rabbinical court judges from harassment and threats.

This is a motion use mostly in cases of domestic violence. The rabbinical court judges objected to the request by means of their attorneys David Shoob and Yishay Sarid and at the end of the long court session last week the judge announced he would hand down his decision at a later date.

In an interview with Haaretz, Friedman said he is prepared nevertheless to withdraw the suit if the rabbinical court judges agree to stand trial at a different rabbinical court.

"This is very low," he said of the condemnations against him. "We are getting the backing of important rabbis in Israel and abroad and the telephone never stops ringing. They are telling us that it's the other side that is responsible for the desecration, not us. We will continue until justice comes to light."