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Talmudic Ethics

Thursday, 10 March, 2011 - 10:34 am

Talmudic Ethics

Coming in May to Sudbury

Talmudic law is a 3000-year-old system of jurisprudence that continues to develop organically and to be practiced today. In this course, we look at the classic books, codes, commentaries and responsa that are the sources of Jewish law and its thought, as well as contemporary cases in civil law that have come before the beit din, the court system of Jewish law. Although modern life brings many new dilemmas, the beit din decides law by taking into account precedent as found in the Talmud and other Jewish legal literature.

The focus of the course is ethics. The relation between law and its practice and ethics is a fundamental matter. Eminent legalists in the Western legal tradition speak of Grundnormen, fundamental principles that underlie all law and to which all law and practice of law must conform. Concepts of equity constantly redefine the rights and obligations of citizens that civil codes and torts seek to govern.

Jewish law has been wrestling with the relation between ethics and law for more than three millennia. It offers a rich storehouse of insight that can directly benefit any legal professional. Aside from the ever-larger role that comity plays in a very interconnected global economy, the characteristic emphasis of Jewish law on what the prophets call tzedek—righteousness—offers a unique model of how a system of law can maintain throughout time the allegiance and even the affection of those under its governance.

There is a deep willingness in these sources to raise fundamental ethical questions, such as: Is mere technical compliance with the rules sufficient? Are ethical imperatives not expressed in law enforceable? Are we constrained to use and practice the law in accordance with any greater principles? By what kind of authority?

As we examine these cases and the relevant sources that inform the decisions, we will compare the Talmud’s underlying principles with the philosophic infrastructure of the American legal system. Not only will differences and similarities be revealed, but also a wealth of relevant insight into the importance of a sound ethical backbone to the health of American government and American law.




May 14th Lesson 1: WHOSE RIGHT TO LIFE?

Life is the first thing protected by law. Without it, there is no liberty or pursuit of happiness. But whose life should be protected in a situation in which, in order for one person to live, another must die or be exposed to deadly danger? By what criteria can the law prefer one life to another? The ethical soundness of the law’s answer to such questions will affect the respect commanded by the law as an authentic response to the need of people to be well-governed.

May 21st Lesson 2: ENDING LIFE

When confronted with grave, incurable illness or unbearable pain, sometimes hastening death seems to be a humane option. Can the law countenance any choice to end life in such situations? What are the underlying principles that enable us to decide whether active or passive methods of ending life can be employed? How can the law protect the helpless from those who would end their lives for their own advantage or comfort? With an increasingly aged population, and with the side effects of modern medicine, we are faced with end of life dilemmas with increasing frequency. What solid ethical principles guide law to respect and protect life while still maintaining humaneness?

May 28th Lesson 3: THE BEGINNING OF LIFE

What is the status of the unborn? Does fetal life enjoy the full protection of someone who has been born? If not, what sort of protection does it enjoy? By virtue of which principles can we make these distinctions? How does Jewish law and precedent compare to contemporary American law? What its ethic of responsibility offer to a system that focuses on rights? The debate over abortion continues to divide the American body politic. Exploring the ethic of the protection of unborn life can offer the possibility of a stable legal consensus that commands public allegiance.

June 4th Lesson 4: ETHICS OF SPEECH

Slander is a recognized offense both in American and Jewish law. What considerations must we make to protect privacy and reputation? Is adherence to truth the only consideration that we need to make, or must we actively take into account the effect of the communication upon the person being talked or written about? How does this affect the practice of law and the transaction of business? The power of speech is fundamental to our humanity. An ethic of the use of speech strengthens the reputation of individuals of the institutions they represent. Especially in the case of those who are agents of the court and the face of the law to the world, there is a great responsibility to use speech in a responsible way.

June 11th Lesson 5: FALSEHOOD

Must the truth always be told? Much as truth is a foundation of justice, are there situations in which it is permissible or even meritorious to stray from the truth? What are the kinds of considerations that might trump truth? Or might truth have several dimensions? If so, by what criteria can we prioritize which dimension of truth we must first honor? Finding an ethic of truth frees us from those who would use the display of petty truths to escape criticism and restraint in human affairs.

June 18th Lesson 6: INFRINGEMENT

Copyrights and trademarks encourage inventive and creative people to invest their time, effort and fortune in their work. The assurance that they will reap a reward from their success, that the fruits of their labors will not be ripped away by someone else, encourages the kind of economic activity that we find valuable as a society. The openness of the Internet has raised debate about how far such protection should extend and posed the right of the public to be served as a competing interest also deserving protection of law. What principles offer guidance in resolving this conflict? Jewish traditions characteristic analysis of interweaving responsibilities offers guidance in this complex and developing area of legal concern.


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