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How secular American law and Jewish law relate

By Maria Kantzavelos
Law Bulletin staff writer
February 01, 2010

If a person is hired to commit murder, but the agreed upon payment is not made, can the hired assassin sue for payment in a court of law?

What happens when someone whose life is threatened delivers a neighbor's property to robbers in order to save his own life? Does the property owner have a right to sue for recovery?

What if someone agrees to take care of a book of modest value, loses it, and then it is discovered that the book is actually a rare and valuable first edition? How much liability does a person assume for loss incurred by negligence or by willful destruction of an object that turns out to be more expensive than expected?

These are the sorts of questions to be explored in a course being offered to Illinois attorneys for MCLE credit by the Jewish Learning Institute of Metropolitan Chicago.

The six-week course, "You Be the Judge: Behind the Steering Wheel of Jewish Law," begins this week in two downtown locations, and started last week at sites in Skokie and Northbrook. 

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Immoral contracts and liability for personal property, profits generated through unauthorized use of another's property, Holocaust-related claims and methods for determining truth are some of the topics to be explored through the lens of Talmudic law, a thousands-year-old system of jurisprudence that is still practiced today, said Rabbi Meir Hecht, director of the Jewish Learning Institute of Metropolitan Chicago, which is headquartered in the Rogers Park offices of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois.

The course, said Hecht, an orthodox Jewish rabbi, explores how secular American law and Jewish law relate by examining actual cases brought before a beit din, or court of Jewish law.

Rabbinic courts exist in Israel and other parts of the world, including the United States and Chicago, where "we do have a very strong rabbinic presence and rabbinic court — the Chicago Rabbinical Council," Hecht said.

Halacha — which was formed based on the holy scriptures, especially the Talmud — is the actual body of law that is incorporated into modern situations, Hecht said. The rabbinic courts, he said, operate like arbitrators or mediators to resolve disputes between two Jewish parties that want their cases heard in accordance with Talmudic law.

The course for attorneys has been offered before by the Jewish Learning Institute of Metropolitan Chicago. But this is the first time attorney attendees can receive continuing legal education credit — up to nine MCLE credits or MCLE ethics credits.

"There are a lot of Jewish lawyers who are looking for opportunities to enhance their legal profession with more inspiration and study beyond the typical traditional American legal world," Hecht said. "We offer both a legal perspective, but also the Talmudic law from the Talmud, based on the original Bible and Talmudic sources, as well as mysticism angles to our teaching. So people see a deeper side to life and of legal ethics, and what it means in terms of their work and in their relationships with their clients. ... It adds a heightened and deeper understanding of life, not just the basic professional obligation."

The course, Hecht said, is open to all attorneys, regardless of their religious backgrounds.

"We've taught some of our courses even at law firms that have high percentages of non-Jews," he said. "They are universal teachings that have implications for life, for every individual."

Donald S. Solomon, of counsel at Brown, Udell, Pomerantz & Delrahim, is among those enrolled in the course starting up this week.

"It's always good to be exposed to different cases and to see how different laws apply and particularly to see how different reasoning is applied," Solomon said. "There's a legal point of view and an ethical point of view. From a legal point of view, it may be that one side wins just because. But from an ethical point, perhaps the other side should win just because.

"It helps me at least to look at both sides."

In the six-week course, Hecht, who is the instructor at the two downtown locations, said attendees will discuss the parallels and differences between how the American or common law looks at legal ideas and how Jewish law and the Torah looks at it, the underlying principles of why there are differences, and the message that the Jewish legal system imparts, "which goes beyond just law and focuses on ethics and how to behave, and what life is about."

"What we find is that common law and Talmudic law will come to the same bottom line — the rabbinic court will come to the same conclusion. However, the foundation and the rules that brought them to that decision may be very different," Hecht said.

The two systems share many parallels, Hecht said.

In exploring the topic of enforceability of illicit and immoral contracts, like the question about whether a hired assassin could sue for payment in a court of law, attendees will take a look at an actual case involving a property assessor who was hired to provide an inflated property assessment and then was not paid for the service provided.

"The issue in court was: the agreement of the $5,000 in fulfilling his part of the deal is independent of his illegal act," Hecht said. "Typically, in a regular civil court, the judge would probably throw the case out of court. But in Jewish law, there are strong foundations of ownership that are independent of the nature of the person's actions."

The example case went before a rabbinic court in Jerusalem, Hecht said.

"What ends up happening is that the Talmud said the money is his, technically speaking. Nevertheless, the court will probably fine him for his illegal actions and cannot give him the money. But, in theory, the money is his.

"This is a case that wouldn't even fly in civil court, but we look at ownership as a realistic, deep relationship between the owner of the property or possession, and the possession. Even the Jewish mysticism talks about a divine relationship between the soul of a human being and their possessions. It's a reality that's unchangeable when there's this type of dependent relationship. Nevertheless, the court still has the power to fine someone."

The question of whether a property owner has the right to sue an individual whose life was threatened and so he delivered the neighbor's property to robbers stems from a Holocaust-related claim addressed by a rabbinic court in Tel Aviv.

[In the case], Hecht said, two brothers had each hidden a large sum of money in different places during World War II.

When the Nazis captured one of the men, he pointed out to soldiers where his brother's money was and "after the war, the guy sued his brother in rabbinic court for the value of the treasure this man revealed to save himself from the Nazis," Hecht said.

"The brother who revealed the money, he didn't deny revealing the hiding place," Hecht said. "His claim was his life was dependent on revealing the treasure of his brother."

In the course, attendees will be asked to offer their own opinions on examples of cases, tapping into civil legal perspectives as well as insights from Talmudic law.

"The lawyers argue it back and forth. Some lawyers will push one view, others will push another view," Hecht said. "They enjoy having these arguments over interesting topics we present before them."

For more information on the course offering, including times, locations and fees to attend, visit the JLI online or call (877)-876-9554.

For information on MCLE accredited classes by the Jewish Learning Institute in Northbrook contact Rabbi Meir Moscowitz at Chabad of Northbrook 847-564-8770