LAW 649

Religious Legal Systems: Jewish Law

This course introduces students to Jewish law, beginning with biblical law and continuing through its rabbinic interpretation and expansion over 2500 years to our own day.  This legal system is based on jurisprudential assumptions that in some ways resemble those of American law and in other ways differ markedly from it.

In the first part of the course we will examine how the tradition has dealt with  personal injury, beginning with the notion of “an eye for an eye” and extending through thousands of years of experience to modern rabbinic rulings on smoking.  In the process, students will be introduced to the literature, history, and major forms of law used by this tradition.  In addition, along the way we will consider some philosophical questions that arise especially clearly in exploring a legal system based on different assumptions and historical contexts from those Americans are used to -- questions like these: Who makes the law?  What are the grounds of its authority?  What is the scope of the law (the subjects it treats) and the domain of the law (the people it governs)?  What are the relationships between law and morality?  law and custom? law and religion?

In the second part of the course we will examine the mechanisms this legal system developed to deal with the reality that it almost always has operated in a setting where there is another legal system imposed by the secular state. How shall such conflicts of jurisdiction be handled?  Marriage and divorce will be the example for this unit, including the very different assumptions that drive American and Jewish law on those topics.

Finally, in the third part of the course, we shall examine a few modern theories about how to understand and apply Jewish law to our own time.  These will include samples from the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements, especially as they apply to issues in medical ethics, with some comparisons to American case law on the topics treated (artificial reproductive techniques, abortion, end-of life care).

There are no course prerequisites. I assume that students have no special background or familiarity with the Jewish materials to be studied. All class materials are in English.  On the other hand, those who do know something about these materials will see them in a new, comparative and philosophical light.Students will complete three short papers of 6-8 double-spaced pages as the written requirements of the course.

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