A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge has thrown out a religious court's decision to award four disputed Torahs to an Orthodox rabbi's widow who claimed that the scrolls had been stolen by her late husband's assistant.
The religious court, known in Hebrew as a beis din, ruled in January that the four Torahs belonged to Rita Pauker of North Hollywood. The scrolls had been in the care of her late husband's assistant, Rabbi Samuel Ohana, for more than a decade.
Pauker argued that a handwritten agreement between her late husband, Norman, and Ohana proved that the scrolls were lent to Ohana for only two years. Ohana maintained that Rabbi Pauker gave the Torahs to Ohana's Sherman Oaks congregation in 1998 after Pauker's own synagogue closed.
After the religious court ruled, Ohana refused to turn over the Torahs to Pauker. Instead, he appealed to a higher court in Israel. Pauker, meanwhile, took the case to the civil court system in Los Angeles, seeking to enforce the local religious court's ruling.
On Monday, Superior Court Judge Zaven V. Sinanian ruled in Ohana's favor based on what he believed may have been a conflict for one of the three religious judges, Rabbi Nachum Sauer.
Ohana's attorney argued that Sauer did not disclose comments he made in a newspaper article, more than a year before the case came before him, that seemed to show he believed the Torahs belonged to Pauker.
Sauer has maintained that he was speaking at the time in general terms and not about specifics of the Pauker case. He said he would never judge a legal matter of which he had prior knowledge.
Sinanian did not question Sauer's credibility. In his ruling, however, he said the rabbi's published comments "could create the strong impression in the mind of a reasonable person that the matter had been prejudged by him."
Ohana called the legal victory bittersweet, saying he was saddened that the matter wound up in the Jewish and civil court systems.
He said his appeal to the religious court in Israel is now moot.
"I didn't want to go to court," he said. "It was forced on me."
But the legal saga is expected to continue. Pauker said she planned to appeal Sinanian's ruling.
"If I have to beg in the streets to raise the money for my lawyers, I'm going to do it," she said.