Brooklyn Boro

Scholar on Jewish Law emphasizes importance of social safety net

May 20, 2016 By Francesca Norsen Tate Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Emory University Law Professor Michael J. Broyde. Photo courtesy of Emory University School of Law

Professor Michael Broyde to Discuss Jewish Legal System as Foundation for Modern Law

Jewish law has provided a strong foundation for the modern Western legal system, says Professor Michael J. Broyde of Emory University.

Professor Broyde, who is giving a lecture at Congregation Mount Sinai on Monday, May 23, gave a scoop preview this week to the Brooklyn Eagle on the close bond between law, faith and morality, and on the Jewish rabbinic legal tradition’s influence on modern law. What follows are some excerpts from this interview.

“From the perspective of the Jewish tradition, a central feature of religion is its close connection to law. I understand fully well that not every faith agrees with that. Some faiths perceive religion and law to be like peanut butter and steak — opposites; each is good, but not to be done together,” Broyde pointed out. “The Jewish tradition thinks that a central characteristic of being a good person is determining what the law is, and being obedient to it.”

Among Broyde’s key points: The Jewish legal tradition, halakhah, closely connects morality, good behavior and religion; Judaism set forth the modern system of law and established parameters on behavior; justice is tied to a fully functioning ethical society; and Jewish tradition lays out principles that are “timeless and timely” — valid even if contemporary examples and applications didn’t exist or if ancient ones are obsolete. For example, the Internet didn’t yet exist in ancient times, but many principles of the Jewish tradition on privacy and reading of other people’s mail still apply here.

Broyde gave other examples of how Jewish tradition remains connected to today’s law system: what constitutes a crime; illicit sexual activity; family relationships; and the idea that government has a duty to support the poor. “These are all foundational Jewish law concepts. Even our Sunday Blue Laws are only one step removed from the Jewish tradition — the Jewish roots of the of the Saturday Blue Laws. But the idea of Sunday Blue Laws is driven by the Jewish tradition.”

In a generation when most urban stores — even those selling liquor — now operate seven days a week, the concept of Blue Laws may be unfamiliar. Blue Laws, which some nations and U.S. states still have, are meant to restrict or ban particular activities or forms of commerce for religious reasons and to mandate a day of rest in the secular world.

Broyde placed special emphasis on society’s obligation to the needy. “The idea of a welfare law — that the duty to support the poor is intrinsic to the state’s obligation to its citizens — is front and central in the Jewish tradition. It creates an idea that recognizes the duty of civil society to care of the weak. That is a religious, moral obligation that has to be actualized. The idea of necessity changes as well.”

Responding to ideology from some groups that caring for the needy should fall to the individual and not the government, Broyde again emphasizes that Jewish rabbinic and prophetic tradition mandate the opposite.

“It’s nice if I take care of my neighbor. But the Jewish tradition mandates that the society do so ultimately. Yes, that’s correct. Ultimately it’s a societal duty.”

The hosting synagogue, Congregation Mount Sinai, has a venerable tradition of presenting in-depth discussions on the Torah, Talmud and other aspects of Jewish law. The May 23 program is co-sponsored by the Brooklyn Brandeis Society. It is the complementary program to a Law Shabbat on Saturday, May 21 that the above groups — plus the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Brooklyn, Columbian Lawyers Association of Brooklyn and Kings County Criminal Bar Association — are co-sponsoring.

Broyde’s May 23 talk is titled “Jewish Law Influences on the Common Law and on Modern Anglo-American Law.” His presentation will encompass the areas of arbitration, welfare, criminal, marriage and tax law.

For more information, contact Bob at the synagogue: 718-875-9124. Reservations are required for a light supper that precedes Broyde’s 6:15 p.m. talk. The cost is $20 per person. The synagogue is at 250 Cadman Plaza West.