Does Rabbinic Judaism Acknowledge a Fundamental Difference between Civil and Ritual Law?

For modern Western readers, it seems natural to see a gaping divide between the Torah’s ritual laws (like the prohibitions against eating certain foods) and its civil laws (like those governing torts). The biblical text, by contrast, slips easily from one category to the other, while the Talmud recognizes a distinction but tends to portray both categories as part of a unified and unchanging divine law. Drawing on the work of the early-20th-century Russian talmudist Shimon Shkop, Chaim Saiman argues that the Jewish tradition does recognize a qualitative difference between these two areas of halakhah:

[I]f one confronts a piece of meat of unknown status, halakhah requires abstaining from it to avoid even the possibility of transgression. This principle [of caution] applies to any biblical [as opposed to rabbinic] prohibition. . . . Shkop notes, however, that theft is also a biblical prohibition. The principle of stringency in the case of doubt would therefore counsel that when there is factual or legal doubt as to who owns an asset, whoever has it in his possession should refrain from using the asset for fear of violating the biblical prohibition against theft.

Shkop notes that this is emphatically not the halakhic rule. . . . [H]alakhic civil law, like its secular counterparts, assumes that the plaintiff bears the burden of proof. . . . Unless and until the plaintiff meets his burden, the defendant is permitted to retain and use the disputed asset. But why, asks Shkop, is this instance any different from the meat of uncertain kosher status? . . .

Shkop answers this question by proposing a novel understanding of halakhic civil law. These rules, he argues, are not primarily established by divine mandate. Instead, human rationality and institutions create the system of property, ownership, contract, and tort. . . . While some elements of civil law are indeed determined by biblical exegesis, the bulk are generated by human reason. . . . In Shkop’s account, [therefore], the civil law allows for human intuition and reason to establish legal entitlements and liabilities. But it is the transcendent divine call, a call still heard echoing from Sinai, that calls upon us to live up to these obligations.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Halakhah, Jewish law, Judaism, Religion & Holidays


The Right and Wrong Ways for the U.S. to Support the Palestinians

Sept. 29 2023

On Wednesday, Elliott Abrams testified before Congress about the Taylor Force Act, passed in 2018 to withhold U.S. funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) so long as it continues to reward terrorists and their families with cash. Abrams cites several factors explaining the sharp increase in Palestinian terrorism this year, among them Iran’s attempt to wage proxy war on Israel; another is the “Palestinian Authority’s continuing refusal to fight terrorism.” (Video is available at the link below.)

As long as the “pay for slay” system continues, the message to Palestinians is that terrorists should be honored and rewarded. And indeed year after year, the PA honors individuals who have committed acts of terror by naming plazas or schools after them or announcing what heroes they are or were.

There are clear alternatives to “pay to slay.” It would be reasonable for the PA to say that, whatever the crime committed, the criminal’s family and children should not suffer for it. The PA could have implemented a welfare-based system, a system of family allowances based on the number of children—as one example. It has steadfastly refused to do so, precisely because such a system would no longer honor and reward terrorists based on the seriousness of their crimes.

These efforts, like the act itself, are not at all meant to diminish assistance to the Palestinian people. Rather, they are efforts to direct aid to the Palestinian people rather than to convicted terrorists. . . . [T]he Taylor Force Act does not stop U.S. assistance to Palestinians, but keeps it out of hands in the PA that are channels for paying rewards for terror.

[S]hould the United States continue to aid the Palestinian security forces? My answer is yes, and I note that it is also the answer of Israel and Jordan. As I’ve noted, PA efforts against Hamas or other groups may be self-interested—fights among rivals, not principled fights against terrorism. Yet they can have the same effect of lessening the Iranian-backed terrorism committed by Palestinian groups that Iran supports.

Read more at Council on Foreign Relations

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror, U.S. Foreign policy