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Lawyers look to Talmud and Torah

WASHINGTON, Nov. 20 — The United States legal system has existed for more than 200 years, but that history pales in comparison to the thousands of years Jews have been observing the laws of the Torah and Talmud. Now, a group of Jewish lawyers and legal scholars have formed an organization to promote understanding of Jewish law among students and the general population. The National Institute for Judaic Law has an ambitious agenda of projects, starting, in the wake of the past year’s Wall Street scandals, with an exploration of what Judaic law teaches about business ethics. Institute director Rabbi Noson Gurary, a professor at the University of Buffalo Law School, said that just about every legal issue, “in some way, with a tremendous amount of logic, has foundation in Jewish law.” “Having this … wealth of information [available] can only be a plus,” he said, allowing judges, lawyers, law students and professors new and different perspectives on contemporary issues. One important legal mind who already has expressed an interest in Judaic law is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Gurary discussed Jewish law with Scalia a few years ago when the latter came to Buffalo to speak at Gurary’s law school. The professor later received a letter from the justice noting the benefit of studying other law systems, especially one as developed as Jewish law. “Knowledge of another legal system helped him to understand [the U.S. legal] system” better,” said Gurary of Scalia’s note. The Catholic Scalia was one of three Supreme Court justices — along with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both of whom are Jewish — who attended and delivered brief remarks at the institute’s kick-off event earlier this month at the Supreme Court. The 200-person event also included a sit-down kosher dinner, the first ever served at the nation’s highest court. D.C. lawyer Alyza Lewin, who is helping to coordinate the institute, said the organization hopes to start a monthly luncheon program that will examine a particular issue, and is planning to hold a national conference on Jewish law and business ethics sometime next year. Lewin and her father, Nathan Lewin, are trailblazers of sorts in the field of Judaic law, having submitted a brief to the Supreme Court three years ago examining what Judaic law says on the topic of capital punishment. Lewin said she believes it was the first amicus brief that did not contain a single American law citation. It looked at the use of the electric chair in Florida, which had been malfunctioning and setting people on fire. The Talmud laid out three standards that needed to be met when a prisoner was executed: It must be instantaneous, painless and the body must be treated with respect. The Florida electric chair met none of them. “We attempted to show the justices who were interested that [the Talmud] grappled with this issue so long ago … and they may find this of interest,” Lewin said. (As it turned out, shortly before the case was heard, the Florida state legislature made lethal injection the primary mode of execution, and the court never ruled on the case.) Depaul University College of Law professor Steven Resnicoff, who along with Emory School of Law professor Michael Broyde, is co-chairing the institute’s business ethics project, said Jewish law often offers “psychological insights” by illuminating how people relate to each other, as well as substantive solutions to problems. Jewish law offers a number of insights into business ethics. Resnicoff noted that Jewish law teaches that life cannot be compartmentalized — doing something morally wrong in the service of defending a client, for instance, cannot be separated from one’s own personal morality. Resnicoff also pointed out that Jewish law places a great emphasis on “getting other people involved in the decision-making process” — vetting one’s decisions with a wise adviser, as well as with a friend who knows the decision maker well. He said that “very few people want to be bad,” but manage to rationalize their wrongdoing. One wonders, he said, if those who manipulated the books at Enron or WorldCom would have found the “self-justification” necessary to carry out their misdeeds had they discussed their actions with “people whom they respect.” In addition to holding monthly luncheons and the business ethics conference, the institute’s goals include creation of a research and reference materials collection, teaching materials and course curricula on Jewish law; promotion of chairs in Jewish law at American universities; and the publication of various books and papers on specific subjects of interest.Eric Fingerhut is a staff writer for the Washington Jewish Week.