Bankruptcy and the Bible

Brooklyn Law School dean explores God's plan for debt relief

By Eli MacKinnon

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother and Chapter 11, Title 11, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.

Presumably that’s not how the original tablets read, but maybe Chapter 11 picks up where the Ten Commandments leave off.

Professor Michael Gerber, interim dean of Brooklyn Law School, will present the case for Bible-backed debt reorganization at an “All Nite Torah-Thon” Saturday night at Congregation B'nai Avraham. The after-hours study session is part of the Brooklyn Heights synagogue's observance of the two-day Shavuot festival.

Shavuot marks the anniversary of the day Jews believe God gave their ancestors the Ten Commandments, likely the most widely read legal document in all of history, so it makes sense that B'nai Avraham has asked a law scholar to kick off its night of continuing theological education with an 11:30 p.m. talk on "Bankruptcy and the Bible."


Gerber, a leading authority on Chapter 11 case law, will unpack the Torah's complicated policies on debt relief and try to figure out who the Lord of Abraham would bail out and who, if anyone, he would foreclose on.


"It’s always been interesting to me that the Torah provides for debt forgiveness on so-called jubilee years," he said. "But it also considers the obligation to pay debts as a requirement, so we'll try to reconcile those notions.”

Following Gerber's presentation, Rabbi Chaim Miller will give a talk called “Proof of the Authority of Torah” (12:30-2 a.m.) and Rabbi Aaron Raskin will explore God’s ban on coveting (2-3 a.m.). Raskin quotes the Israeli writer David Hazony in referring to the transgression outlawed in the tenth commandment as "the sin of insecurity," and he will argue that it encompasses and leads to all the rest.


The Torah teaches that a decree to set aside certain years as times of universal debt-cancellation came straight from God as he spoke to Moses, but the attendant regulations of a jubilee year, which include freeing slaves and returning land to its original owners, have not been observed by the vast majority of Jews for many centuries.


Torah scholars disagree on whether God intended for financial slates to be cleaned at intervals of 7, 49 or 50 years, and as Gerber notes, the issue is complicated by the fact that the Bible condemns those who renege on debts: "The wicked borrow and do not repay, but the righteous give generously" (from the Book of Psalms).


Gerber is poised to dispatch at least some of the thousands of years' worth of ambiguity surrounding the issue in his talk on Saturday night, but when the Eagle asked him to clear up why his lecture will begin at 11:30 p.m., he deferred to Rabbi Raskin.


According to Raskin, spiritual leader of B'nai Avraham, which is Brooklyn Heights' only Orthodox synagogue, the tradition of staying up studying Torah throughout the first night of Shavuot is a kind of millennia-long apology to God for oversleeping.


In Raskin’s version of events, God arrived at Mount Sinai on the agreed-upon day at the agreed-upon time fully ready to hand over the two most important pieces of stone the Jewish people would ever receive — pieces of stone that he had led them out of bondage and parted seas to deliver — and when he looked down over creation, he was dismayed to find that the Israelites were still sleeping.


Imagining God's internal monologue at what must have been a profoundly frustrating moment, Raskin said: "Here I am giving you the most valuable gift in the world — how were you able to sleep the night before?"


And because the Jews have not been able to come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, they have opted instead to express their eternal contrition by staying up all night to prepare for the annual reading of the commandments on Shavuot each year.


At 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, B’nai Avraham will host an ice cream party for kids, followed by a reading of the Ten Commandments for all.


Raskin explained that, aside from being a learning incentive, the significance of the ice cream is that it will teach the children that the Torah is “as sweet and delicious as ice cream.” After a moment of thought, he added, “And smooth.”


Along with the commandments, Shavuot also commemorates God's proclamation of the Seven Laws of Noah, which include prohibitions on murder, sexual immorality and animal cruelty, and which, acorrding to Raskin, apply to all of humankind.


As such, “walk-ins” of all creeds are welcome to participate in B’nai Avraham’s “All Nite Torah-Thon.”


Raskin explains: “There’s no doubt that [Shavuot] is a day of reflection and introspection for all humankind, to once again ask ourselves why am I here, why did my soul come into my body, and how can I make the world a better place?”

Congregation B’nai Avraham is at 117 Remsen St. between Henry and Clinton streets. There is no admission charge — and there will be plenty of free coffee.

May 24, 2012 - 3:00pm



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