Understanding Jewish Law

Understanding Jewish Law image
Rabbi Steven H. Resnicoff

Understanding Jewish law is no small undertaking. Yet, that is exactly what Rabbi Steven H. Resnicoff has set out to do, to the benefit of us all. Resnicoff, who recently published his book Understanding Jewish Law, spoke to the DePaul University College of Law Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies (JLJS) about this complex and nuanced topic on Sept. 12.

Resnicoff, a professor at DePaul University College of Law and Co-Director of JLJS, described what Jewish law isadmittedly not an easy taskand from where it is derived. According to Resnicoff, Jewish law is a system of authorities, institutions, and procedures for determining, formulating, and enforcing rules regarding human conduct and responsibility. It is based on fundamental assumptions, principles, and values of Judaism. "What it is" is almost as important was what it is not: Jewish law is not Israeli law nor is it the secular law of any other nation.

Included in the assumptions on which Jewish law is based is the belief that Jewish law requires people to be responsible to and accountable for the acts of other people. This strongly contrasts with secular law. For instance, generally, under secular law one does not owe a duty to protect or save another person (except for limited circumstances). However, under Jewish law, one is not allowed to stand by why his or her neighbor is "bleeding," nor can one place a stumbling block in front of someone who is blind. In other words, not only are Jews prevented from thwarting a person, but at times, Jews have the obligation to assist others. In the words of Cain in the Torah, yes, indeed Jews are their brothers' keepers.

Additionally, Resnicoff stated that Jewish law assumes that human beings are accountable for the choices they make. People are given free will, so each person can make his or her own choices, but each person is accountable for the consequences of those choices, both in this life and the afterlife.

In today's world, there are many misconceptions about Jewish law. For instance, some assert that Jewish law interprets the Torah literally. However, this misconception ignores the fact that in addition to the written Torah, Jewish law also consists of oral law, including the Mishna, the Talmud, and other sources of law, which are an integral component to understanding Jewish law.

Similarly, although some assume that Jewish law is static and unchanging, the reverse is correct: Jewish law's basic principles are often applied to new factual scenarios, with the insight of rabbinic authority, customs, private agreements between individuals and even secular law (dina deMalkhuta dina, or literally "the law of the government is law") serving as sources for how to apply these ancient principles.

Resnicoff made a case for why Jewish law is relevant and how it can interact with secular law. For instance, in inheritance law, banking and divorce, Jewish law plays a relevant role when any of the parties are observant of Jewish law. For instance, recently the Illinois Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's sanctioning of a man who refused to grant his wife a get-a divorce document, which according to Jewish Law, must be presented by a husband to his wife to perfect their divorce. Similarly, Jewish law is highly relevant to modern-day issues concerning the sanctity of life, including abortion, end of life wishes, blood donation, compulsory medical treatment, civilian casualties when conducting war, and the response to terrorist attacks.

More than anything, Resnicoff argued, Jewish law generally teaches us to be good people. The Babylonian Talmud, Sabbath 31a, states that Raba (B. Joseph B. Ḥama) said that "When man is led in for Judgment he is asked, 'did you deal faithfully…'" followed by a number of other questions about learning and following the mitzvoth. It is notable that the first question asks if you were honest and lived your life with integrity. With an understanding of Jewish law, I am hopeful we will all be able to answer "Yes!"

Stephanie R. Dykeman is director of Domestic Affairs for the Jewish United Fund's Jewish Community Relations Council. She is also an Advisory Board Member of the DePaul University College of Law Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies.

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