Would you abolish the current right under English law of Orthodox Jews to have civil cases heard in the Beth Din with the agreement of both parties?
If so, why haven’t you protested about the Beth Din previously? If not, then why on earth don’t you think that Muslims should be granted the same rights you are happy to extend to Orthodox Jews?
Update – from dsquared in the comments, a summary of the ways in which the rights available to Orthodox Jews are currently not available to Muslims, and would not be available to Muslims without additional legislation:
[Sharia] arbitration services aren’t in general binding unless they’re recognised by the normal courts, meaning that they are absolutely rife with jurisdiction-shoppers who go to the sharia court in bad faith, with the intention of then going to a normal court if the judgement goes against them. You can’t do this with a Beth Din (or various other courts of arbitration) because they’re binding arbitration. At present there are Sharia Councils which do carry out arbitration, but in the absence of a specific pre-existing contract, it’s not binding.
When John Doe shows up to the court complaining about the deal he received at the Beth Din under arbitration, claiming he’s been made the victim of a capricious and arbitrary ruling, the courts will chuck it out because there’s a lot of history of the Beth Din working as a proper arbitration service. If Richard Roe shows up claiming that Sheikh Joe Bloggs has acted unfairly and arbitrarily in the Sharia Court of Bumsville, then the court will have to take this seriously because they’ve never heard of Sheikh Bloggs or his alleged “court” before.
It might seem reasonable to conclude that things would work a lot better if the British Islamic community could agree on a core of sharia principles that they could all live with, unify the Sharia Councils structure and work toward getting improved legal recognition of its work in arbitration.
22 thoughts on “Question to people who are cross with Rowan Williams”
My view is that any other voluntary legal tradition should be tolerated if it passes a basic 'barbaric/not barbaric' test and also a 'so just how voluntary is it?' test. Sharia fails both tests.
They already have the right to hold civil cases under sharia provided that both parties agree and it is a fairly common practice.
But, of course, nobody is suggesting that stoning should be allowable; what he suggested was that the parties to a contract should be able to elect which jurisdiction it should be litigated in. You already do this; you did this the last time you bought an airline ticket (see the clause on the back about the Vienna convention).
And, I assume, he suggests that this procedure would be binding in so far as it doesn't conflict with the law of the land. In which case, what possible grounds are there to complain?
I would normally be loathe to point anyone towards a Mel Phillips article, but this one is actually rather good (and she was at the original lecture).
Specifically, she addresses the differences between the Beth Din and what the Archbishop was proposing for Shari'a.
From Mad Mel: "Their dispute resolution is informal and voluntary. Their religious marriage and divorce rituals have no status in English law (with the exception of one tiny wrinkle designed to help resolve an anomaly in Jewish divorce law which causes otherwise unavoidable distress)"
i.e. "their religious marriage and divorce rituals have status in English law".
I have always assumed that any two parties to a dispute are always free to settle the matter in any form or forum they wish *provided* the result does not contravene British law. For example, if the agreed outcome was the honour(?) killing of a woman the perps would be up the Old Bailey rather sharpish, as indeed some of them have been.
Beth Din is nothing more than an arbitration service where all parties can choose to abide by the ruling or choose to go through the civil courts. The only anomaly is that only Beth Din can annul a Jewish marriage. There is nothing to stop Muslim communities or indeed any other group of people setting up their own arbitration service and nothing to stop them using Sharia as a guiding principle to resolve the dispute. There is also nothing to stop people using the toss of a coin or the drawing of cards to resolve a dispute, as long as the resolution is compliant with English (and Scottish) law.
The Archbishop is a clever and thoughtful man, so we are told, and if this is what he meant then he could quite easily have said so. The fact that he didn't means he has something else in mind. Melanie Philip's blog which is referred to above is a good starting point.
It could be that the Archbishop is saying that which will scare lapsed Anglicans back into church.
There is nothing to stop Muslim communities or indeed any other group of people setting up their own arbitration service and nothing to stop them using Sharia as a guiding principle to resolve the dispute.
Actually there is. Such arbitration services aren't in general binding unless they're recognised by the normal courts, meaning that they are absolutely rife with jurisdiction-shoppers who go to the sharia court in bad faith, with the intention of then going to a normal court if the judgement goes against them. You can't do this with a Beth Din (or various other courts of arbitration) because they're binding arbitration. At present there are Sharia Councils which do carry out arbitration, but in the absence of a specific pre-existing contract, it's not binding (viz, last year Ed Balls had to engineer through a whole raft of measures in the finance bill to provide a legal infrastructure for Islamic finance in UK statute law – this wouldn't have been necessary if Islamic financiers were able to just commit to binding arbitration by a sharia court.
The problem is that the Beth Din are using a reasonably stable body of law which is recognised by the UK as such. There is, OTOH, no single recognised "sharia" in the UK – there are lots of scholars who disagree with one another on fairly fundamental principles. This means that when John Doe shows up to the court complaining about the deal he received at the Beth Din under arbitration, claiming he's been made the victim of a capricious and arbitrary ruling, the courts will chuck it out because there's a lot of history of the Beth Din working as a proper arbitration service. If Richard Roe shows up claiming that Sheikh Joe Bloggs has acted unfairly and arbitrarily in the Sharia Court of Bumsville, then the court will have to take this seriously because they've never heard of Sheikh Bloggs or his alleged "court" before.
It might seem reasonable to conclude that things would work a lot better if the British Islamic community could agree on a core of sharia principles that they could all live with, unify the Sharia Councils structure and work toward getting improved legal recognition of its work in arbitration. In fact, there are quite a couple of projects in this direction being carried out right now. However, as sensible as this looks, it is actually dhimmi dhummocracy of the worst kind which will lead to us all being stoned to death as the muezzin ring out from loudspeakers across the minarets of Carlisle.
If that's getting prominence on the front page, I should probably be pointing out (before everyone else does) that it's a bit stream of consciousness and all over the place about the concept of "binding arbitration". Let's try again …
The point I was trying to make is that calling something "binding" doesn't necessarily make it binding. For example, let us say that you and me write a contract whereby you pay me £10 for every mention of the Nazis on Melanie Phillips blog. We write a contract agreeing to "binding arbitration" by Chris Brooke.
Then Melanie writes "The Muslim dhimmis are the new NSDAP". I ask for my tenner and you say that "NSDAP" doesn't count as "Nazis". We go to arbitration.
Chris Brooke says "shut up, stop bothering me, I don't care about your stupid contract. I'm busy. Well I'll flip a coin then … heads, John wins."
I then say "see you in court, buster". I'll take this one to the civil courts, arguing that Chris's arbitration was capricious, perverse, contrary to natural justice and in general he didn't do his job as an arbitrator, etc. I might win (actually I would win in this case because I've set up the example that way, but in more normal cases, I would still have a chance).
It is actually pretty difficult to achieve the holy grail of "binding arbitration". The Beth Din and ACAS achieve it because they've got credibility (and I think an actual legal recognition of this credibility via some government list of recognised courts of arbitration or other) – if you've agreed to go to one of those two and then ask the court to overturn their decision, you're almost certainly out of luck.
No sharia council has anything like that credibility (for the reasons outlined above). This makes them more or less useless for general matters of law except (ironically) for people who are so emeshed in the Muslim community that they would do whatever the local imam told them to anyway. Clearly, no normal businessman is going to agree to a "binding arbitration" that isn't necessarily binding – that's why we needed all that stuff about Islamic finance in the statute law.
“Would you abolish the current right under English law of Orthodox Jews to have civil cases heard in the Beth Din with the agreement of both parties?”: Yes. See http://philobiblon.co.uk/?p=2405
Many feminists would agree.
Funny how so many male bloggers pontificating about this current controversy just happen not to know or care about feminist objections to religious "law", isn’t it?
Well done you, three cheers – you might be patronising, but at least you're not a Muslim-hating bigot.
[and yes, of course I know about some feminists' objections to allowing religious law to be used to settle disputes with the prior consent of both parties, but thanks for the helpful pointer – it's nice to know your patronisingness isn't exclusively confined to ethnic minority women whose religious belief invalidates their ability to be trusted with decisions about their own lives, poor dears…]
The “winkle” to which Mel P refers is the clause of the Divorce (Religious Marriage) Act 2002 which permits a husband/wife to obtain an order that the decree of divorce not be made absolute until
“[t]he parties to the marriage concerned (a) were married in accordance with (i) the usages of the Jews, or (ii) any other prescribed religious usages; and (b) must co-operate if the marriage is to be dissolved in accordance with those usages.” 
However, “(a) may be made only if the court is satisfied that in all the circumstances of the case it is just and reasonable to do so; and (b) may be revoked at any time. “.
As you can see, all though the law mentions “the Jews” specifically, it also extends to “other prescribed religious usages”. In this case it exists largely to protect a partner who gets a civil divorce but whose spouse refuses them a religious divorce [a Get in Jewish law], preventing their remarriage in an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform synagogue [rendering them an “Agunah” in Jewish law] 
The three important points to note are (i) English law  maintains supremacy (ii) the words “Get” and “Beth Din” do not appear (iii) the act AS IT STANDS contains reference to “other prescribe religious usage”. The issue, as dsquared points out above, is that that Shari’a courts haven’t been around as long as the Beth Din. To some extent the problem will resolve itself in time, and could be hurried along much better by someone in a civil case using the Divorce act to stop a partner from getting his/her decree Nisi made absolute: This would introduce into case law one recognized Shari’a court, and we could go from there with no need to primary legislation. Alternatively, we could amend the Divorce act to say “the usages of the Jews; the usages of the Moslems; or…” ,although it seems quite unnecessary.
 Divorce (Religious Marriage) Act 2002 http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts2002/ukpga_200200…
Inserted into the “Matrimonial Causes Act 2002” c.18
Implemented via the Family Proceeding (Amendment) Rules 2003
 Liberal and Progressive synagogues do have Beth Din, but as – I believe – they permit religious remarriage without religious divorce, the Beth Din do not issue Gets.
 I can’t see any material differences between this and the amendments made to section 3A of the Divorce (Scotland) Act 1976 by the Family Law Act 2006, but as I know so little about Scottish law I’ll leave that to people who know more than I.
 However, the Beth Din have no recognition in English Law, not under these acts, nor under the Arbitration Act 1996.
John B: sorry for double posting earlier. This is because I’m rubbish; thanks for deleting superfluous one.
In this comment I refer extensively to the Arbitration Act 1996, which you can find online at: http://opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1996/ukpga_19960023_e…
and to the ACAS Arbitration Scheme (Great Britain) Order 2004, a statutory instrument which replaced the earlier 2001 Order, which can be found at http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2004/20040753.htm
[…]. Such arbitration services aren’t in general binding unless they’re recognised by the normal courts, meaning that they are absolutely rife with jurisdiction-shoppers who go to the sharia court in bad faith, with the intention of then going to a normal court if the judgement goes against them. […]
The “binding” nature of arbitration is achieved through the “Arbitration Agreement” which all parties either sign or assent to . The London Beth Din, for example, requires this, and I presume the other Beth Din do, too . It is this Agreement that makes the result of the Beth Din judgment enforceable in the civil courts . As this is a civil matter, judgments can only be pecuniary  in nature (an “Arbitration Award”). Now, this can be challenged in the courts (there is no parallel jurisdiction), and the process itself can be challenged on Natural Justice  grounds, but the assent of the parties (evidenced by the Arbitration Agreement) constitutes powerful evidence the parties were familiar with the arbitration procedures and aren’t really in a position to complain. The test, unsurprisingly given we’re talking about English Law, is that the procedure is “reasonable”.
Although jurisdictional shopping must be a concern, I’m unaware of any case law where the where litigants have “[gone] to a normal court if the judgment goes against them”. Could you post a reference to the case law? I’ve had a quick scout round and couldn’t turn any up.
…“The Beth Din and ACAS achieve it because they’ve got credibility (and I think an actual legal recognition of this credibility via some government list of recognised courts of arbitration or other)”
The Beth Din enjoy no legal recognition save (i) the Divorce (Religious Marriage) Act 2002 that I discussed above, which is in any case of through “the usages of the Jews” and not specific courts (ii) through case law and the arbitration act (1996), which is open to anyone, although clearly favours older, established institutions.
ACAS is slightly different: set up, to provide mediation as well as arbitration, by statutory instrument (the most recent one sited at the beginning of this comment. It is governed by the Arbitration Act 1996 [except a minor modification to 46(1)(b): see paragraph 5 of the SI].
…Clearly, no normal businessman is going to agree to a “binding arbitration” that isn’t necessarily binding – that’s why we needed all that stuff about Islamic finance in the statute law.
I’m not sure I follow your argument: as financial instruments are regaled by separate laws, surely they require different primary legislation? The example that’s most familiar to me is mortgages based on Musharakah which used to require payment of double stamp duty, which seems rather unfair and has been changed with no problem at all- by amending statute law. Surely pretty much any new financial instrument would need primary legislation? [As I am completely – and embarrassingly – ignorant about finance, please correct me if I’ve misunderstood]
…“It might seem reasonable to conclude that things would work a lot better if the British Islamic community could agree on a core of sharia principles that they could all live with, unify the Sharia Councils structure and work toward getting improved legal recognition of its work in arbitration.”
I don’t know this is necessary, any more than there’s just one Beth Din. However, a small number of respected courts – one for each school of interpretation of Shari’a, say – will presumably coalesce without any need for further legislation, just through application of the law as it stands.
 It is a requirement that the agreement be in writing, and the consent of the parties be evidenced in writing, but not actually that the parties sign it [Arbitration Act, section 5]
In the orgy of coverage that has accompanied the Archbishops speech, there has been an assumption that (i)there is only one Beth Din which (ii) constitutes some sort of monolithic institution for all Jews in the country. As I discussed in my comment above, this is false.
 Ibid., although note that the Award can only be enforced through the civil courts “with prior permission of the Beth Din”.
 Except, of course, those powers discussed in Arbitaration Act 1996 paragraph 48(5) (a)-(c), but as these are in effect contact law, they need to be enforced by civil courts anyway.
 And these days, the Human Rights Act 1998, although I’m not familiar with any Human Rights case law on Beth Din.
Check out Halpern vs Halpern for some truly epic jurisdiction-shopping between the Zurich Beth Din, the New York State Bar and the Court of Appeal (which is where it ended up)
Note also that as well as choosing the venue, an arbitration agreement should specify the rules to be used. One of the big questions in Halpern v Halpern was whether "under Jewish law" was sufficiently specific and a precedent was cited to a case I don't remember when "under sharia law was the crucial point. In any case, if you sign an agreement to arbitrate in a sharia court you're taking a really big risk on the caprice of the individual imam, because unless you're prepared to write a legal code from scratch in your arbitration agreement, he's going to call it like he sees it based on the Koran, so you have no real idea what legal principles are going to be at work. This isn't the case with Jewish civil law, which has a stable body of what it is to aim at.
Hello dsquared, thanks for the response.
I assume you are referring to the court of appeals “Halpern and Ors vs. Halpern and Anr”(2007, neutral reference number:  EWCA Civ 291), which can be found online at this link: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2007/291….
While the juristional shopping is “interesting but arid” [as one of the lower court judges puts it], it sheds no light on the “absolutely rife with jurisdiction-shoppers who go to the sharia court in bad faith, with the intention of then going to a normal court if the judgement goes against them” issue.
Neither do the two cases regarding Shari’a law that the judgment cites:
1) Shamil Bank of Bahrain EC v Beximico Pharmaceuticals Ltd ,first cited at paragraph 21.
2) Al Midani v Al Midani  first cited at paragraph 24
Shamil Bank was a judgment by the Court of Appeal regarding weather Shari’a law was an “express choice” of law under the meaning of the Rome convention . The court found that it was not. However, this is irrelevant as (i) it does not refer to a specific shari’a court  (ii) does not relate to dispute resolution under the meaning of the Arbitration Act 1996
Al Midani is slightly different: it suggests that “Shari’a law” or indeed “strict Sharia law” [sic] which is later clarified as “such law modified by Saudi law”  could be treated as foreign law for the purposes of resolving the contract. Walker dismisses this on the grounds that the judge did not consider either the 1990 Act or the Rome convention. In any case, this, too, is irrelevant to the issue of the application of Shari’a law under the Arbitration Act 1996.
“In any case, if you sign an agreement to arbitrate in a sharia court you’re taking a really big risk on the caprice of the individual imam, because unless you’re prepared to write a legal code from scratch in your arbitration agreement, he’s going to call it like he sees it based on the Koran, so you have no real idea what legal principles are going to be at work. This isn’t the case with Jewish civil law, which has a stable body of what it is to aim at.”
Shari’a law does not arise from an Iman “call[ing] it like he sees it based on the Koran”. Shari’a law is derived from 3 sources: the Qu’ran, the Hadith [the words and deeds of Muhhamed ] and the Sira [Ibn Ishaq’s “Life Of Muhhamed”]. These provide the basis for interpretation, and permit the construction of the Shari’a. This interpretation has been going on for a long time: the Hanbali school of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, for instance, predates Magna Carta by 200 years. This is no different to the various Talmudic commentaries that inform Jewish law. It is true that there are several schools of Islamic thought; it is also true there are several schools of Jewish thought, hence the Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Progressive Beth Din that I discussed in my earlier comment.
There are plenty of codifications that could be referenced in the Arbitration Agreement : the problem lies in the non-separation of civil and criminal law in the writings of the classical Jurists. However, even this mountain is far from insurmountable: Muslim jurists, in this country and abroad, can produce a “civil only” shari’a, and Arbitration Agreements that reference it.
Actually, if one were to want make both Mel P’s and Iqbal Sacranie’s head explode , one could use a variant of the Civil Shari’a code that is used in Israeli courts: it’s pre-made, is presumably reasonably sensible and broadly compatible with a secular state. 
All this without any primary legislation, and at no expense to the taxpayer. No-one need shout out "Dhimmi!" or "Bigot!".
A piece of case law I should have put in my comment regarding the legal status of religious marriage is Basma Sulaiman Al Sulaiman v Walid Ahmed Al Juffali [1 FLR 479] (2002). The case considered a man who claimed to have dissolved his marriage by the “talaq” methods. Two Jurists attested that this was the case with Shari’a law, testimony the court accepted. However, the court rejected the argument as the “divorce” had occurred in England, so the Shari’a was foreign law and the couple were still married in the eyes of the state .
 Obviously, as incorporated into English law by Contracts (Applicable Law ) Act 1990 (section 2).
 It should be noted that the contract disputed in Shamil Bank included the phrase “subject to the principles of the glorious Shari'a, this agreement shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England”, which is rather problematic, and perhaps explains the courts decision.
 Problematic in the extreme, as Saudi Arabia has no written legal code…
 And who amongst us has never wanted that?
 Clearly, it would be necessary to remove the provisions of family law from the Israeli statute, but that would take all of half an hour.
John Murphy, International Dimensions in Family Law, page 120, footnote 3. Online at: http://books.google.com/books?id=V5qI5eR2550C&…
[There are plenty of codifications that could be referenced in the Arbitration Agreement ]
this is totally the point though – this hypothetical Arbitration Agreement is getting more and more unwieldy isn't it? Plus it doesn't really solve the problem of legal certainty – as a businessman thinking of signing one of these agreements, I now have to employ a lawyer to do due diligence on the particular codification of sharia that you're suggesting we sign up to. You're heavily underestimating the benefits of having a single legal system.
I suggested that bad faith jurisdiction-shopping was a problem of arbitration services in general rather than sharia councils in particular, on the basis of direct experience of something of the sort happening in every arbitration I've ever been involved in (although this has usually taken the form of pretending that one's going to agree to arbitration for the longest time, sussing out the lie of the land, getting the suspicion that the arbitrator isn't friendly and then abruptly backing up, demanding to go to court, then suggesting a different arbitrator, rinse and repeat).
by the way,
[Shari’a law is derived from 3 sources: the Qu’ran, the Hadith [the words and deeds of Muhhamed ] and the Sira [Ibn Ishaq’s “Life Of Muhhamed”]. These provide the basis for interpretation, and permit the construction of the Shari’a. […] This is no different to the various Talmudic commentaries that inform Jewish law.
Yes it is different, precisely because there's much more diversity and heterodoxy between forms of Islam than there is between forms of Orthodox Judaism – there's no Islamic equivalent of the Chief Rabbi, for example. The four or five Betei(?sp) Din in the UK have a more or less formal mutual recognition of one another and in practice lots of the authority is delegated to the London one.
Added to that, you've kind of given it away by drawing an equivalence between "the various Talmudic commentaries that inform Jewish law" and the available source matter for sharia law. The Talmudic commentaries can be arranged as a more or less coherent whole, commenting on each other, modifying one another but basically forming a single body of thought. If they were as wildly heterogenous as the different interpretations of Islamic scholars, the Jewish courts would be in much worse shape.
First up, my apologies for misunderstanding you: I thought you were referring in your original comment to “jurisdiction shopping” as a specific problem with Shari’a arbitration, rather than a general problem with any arbitration. [Although if you reread your comment, I think you’ll see why I thought that]
The questions then become (i) is this any worse than for other, non-Shari’a, forms of arbitration, and (ii) is introducing a Shari’a civil code the best or only way of resolving this?
As you know from your own experience of arbitration, people will be arsey no matter how long (or clear) the agreement is. The fact I’ve now had a – fairly extensive – search, and haven’t turned up any case law on this, either suggests that either it isn’t a problem, or few arbitrations are attempted by the Shari’a courts. You write “You’re heavily underestimating the benefits of having a single legal system.”: this may well be true, but that is an objection to arbitration in general – ACAS, Shari’a or Beth Din.
Its sole redeeming features, to my mind, are that it is often cheaper to arbitrate then to go to court, and arbitration wastes the two consenting parties money, not the States.
Arbitration Agreements are going to be long anyway, regardless of the form that the arbitration takes – I think you might be surprised at quite how unwieldy Beth Din agreements are (tried to find a UK one online, but gave up. Check one out if you get the opportunity)
(ii) Is introducing Civil Shari’a the only way to resolve the matter? I don’t think so. Mainly because by incorporating it into civil law, you lose the major advantages of arbitration (cheap; only wastes the parties money).
It is certainly true that the branches of Islam are more heterodox than Judaism: I didn’t mean to imply that they were not. However, if Shari’a were to be incorporated into English civil law, there needs to be a codification anyway. I’m not sure the British government should be in the business of producing this codification, that’s all. I’ve mentioned one source that could be readily adapted (Israeli Civil Shari’a, after removing the family law provisions), but there are others (see the link below to Ahmad Thomson, for a seriously retro suggestion).
I’m suggesting an evolving system rather than one than a ready made one – there may be a case for incorporating it into civil law, but I think we should have some evidence of the systems efficacy before we start incorporating it into civil law. As all the advocates of Civil Shari’a envision incorporating the 4 schools of (Sunni) Islam (see link below), your hypothetical lawyer is going to need familiarity with all of them. In any case, as the courts will only resolve disputes between Moslems, it is unlikely to cause problems for others.
To some extent I don’t have a dog in this fight: unless I convert to Judaism or Islam, these courts judgments won’t affect me and there is NO danger of the adoption of criminal shari’a here in England, whatever excitable people claim to the contrary.
However, I think that the desires of those who want to access to Islamic jurisprudence to resolve disputes between consenting parties can, with some effort on the part of Moslem lawyers and Jurists, be accommodated within the law as it stands. I’ve listed my reasons at – possibly tedious – length.
Off topic (1):
“there’s no Islamic equivalent of the Chief Rabbi, for example. ”
Actually, Ahmad Thompson, a lawyer who is one of the proponents of Civil Sharia (whose recent speech at the Regents Park Mosque I link to below) has proposed resurrecting a Victorian position:
“The office of Shaykh’ul-Islam of the British Isles – recognised in the 19th century by Queen Victoria and by the leader of the Sunnis and by the leader of the Shi‘as – still exists but remains vacant at present.
Once the office of Shaykh’ul-Islam of the British Isles has been filled, insh’Allah, it will be possible to unify the Muslim community in the UK – by the Muslims giving their oath of allegiance to him or to an Amir appointed by him – and to then organise the affairs of the Muslims in accordance with the Shari‘a and the Sunna, in action as well as in word.” http://www.wynnechambers.co.uk/pdf/RPM_Arbitratio…
Off topic (2):
A brief note on transliteration: “battei din” is (one) way of transliterating the Hebrew plural of Beth Din. However, in the same way as I refer to “Gets” and not “Gettim” above, and would refer to “referendums” and not “referenda”, I will continue to refer the “Beth Din courts” whilst writing in English. We both know what we mean: in the same way, I’ve written Qu’ran, you’ve written Koran, we both know what we mean. For that matter, when I’ve written “talaq” above, which should probably contain an improbable number of apostrophes : superfluous to the Arabic speaker, who will know how it is pronounced, and confusing to the non-Arabic speaker, who will mispronounce it anyway.
The Chief Rabbi is not the head of anything: he's simply the political face of Judaism to the establishment. The current Chief Rabbi is a secular academic who had to undergo a crash course in Jewish law after his appointment. The Rosh Beth Din (head of the BD) is the top legal mind for any particular Beth Din, but there are innumerable other rebbes, rabbis, and gedolim (great ones) who command just as much, if not more, respect than your average Rosh Beis Din. The CR isn't much respected by anyone.
There are two commentaries on the Talmud, the Babylonian and the Yerushalmi. Even within say, the Babylonian Talmud (the one generally reckoned to be authoritative) the commentaries constantly argue, attack, and undermine each other. The whole point of Talmudic scholarship is not to accept anything without questioning it, sometimes to seemingly absurd lengths. There are some rabbis who pop up again and again, seemingly always against the majority. ("A sukkah above twenty amos high is invalid; but R' Yehudah allows this.") While it's certainly the case that the Mishna (the bit everyone comments on, like a statute) is reasonably clear for issues squarely in range, it's the edge cases where you can find opinions ranging across the whole spectrum (2 Jews, five opinions?) and of course edge cases are the ones that end up in court. So I don't think there's anything inherently more certain in Jewish law than in sharia.