Welcome back to our discussion of Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be discussing Jewish law.
Jewish law may be the best-recorded legal system in the history of the world; there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of pages of surviving primary sources covering about twenty-five hundred years.
I think I’ve mentioned before that I had this idea once back in college to do a project on parallel legal systems like Gypsy law, and thankfully someone talked me into switching to Jewish law, mostly out of concern for my physical safety.
But Jewish law is also massively better documented.
One thing I find amusing about Jewish law is that Jews seem to actually like the subject. I can’t tell if that’s something people feel like they’re supposed to say in the same way that people feel like they should claim to like school even if they actually hated it, but they certainly give the impression of being rather enthusiastic on the subject. Where the traditional practice of Chinese law can be summarized as “Please go away and leave us alone,” or “good people don’t need law,” the Jewish approach seems like “More laws, please.”
Problems of Divine Law
Jewish law was, in theory, based on a single unchangeable source–the Torah [first five books of the Bible.]… Basing the law in this way rather than on custom, precedent or legislation raised two problems shared with other legal systems similarly based, including Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and American Constitutional Law.
Note: I wrote a post about this: The Talmud and the Constitution. The trouble comes in when two scholars/judges/etc disagree about what exactly the law should be:
In a system that views law as the creation of a legislature, king, or court of last resort, the same authority that made the law can settle disagreements about it. That does not work for a legal system viewed not as created but as discovered, deduced from divinely inspired sources.
Obviously you need some way to resolve disputes about what exactly the laws should be; you also need some way to change laws should new circumstances arise that necessitate doing so.
The initial solution to the problem of legal uniformity was a simple one. Truth is not determined by majority vote but law can be. … the legal scholars took the position that the interpretation to be followed by judges was determined by the views of the majority of legal scholars.
There follows an amusing story about some rabbis who were arguing about whether an oven could be cleaned. The majority of rabbis held one opinion; the dissenting rabbi’s opinion was closer to the original religious text. God steps in on the dissenting rabbi’s side, at which point the other rabbis basically tell Him to back off, this is a rabbi matter.
His position was summed up by another Rabbi as “The Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai. We pay not attention to a heavenly voice because You have already written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘Follow the Majority.'”
According to the story, God smiled and said to himself, “My children have bested me.”
Most people I have discussed this story with object to it. They just can’t fathom the idea of telling God to buzz off and let the humans interpret divine law. Yet, as a parent, there have certainly been times when my children, as God put it, bested me. And in those moments I didn’t feel irritated or angry, but proud of them for their growth and maturity.
Anyway, as for the Jews, the authors make a good point that you’re much more likely in normal life to encounter cranks and grifters claiming divine revelations than you are to encounter actual divine revelations, so it’s a good idea to just reject divine revelations.
There is an interesting parallel between the conflict between the two schools of Jewish law, ending in the victory of one of them, and the development of Muslim law almost a thousand years later. In the early centuries of Islam, Sunni legal scholars divided themselves into four schools of law named after, and to some degree based on the teaching of, four of the early legal scholars. The schools differed in details of legal interpretation but regarded each other as mutually orthodox–and still do. …
One solution to the problem of [Jewish] legal diversity was the development of geographical schools Judges in France mostly went by the legal opinion of whoever was currently the most prominent legal scholar among French Jews…
This makes sense, given the difficulties of disseminating legal opinions to a diasporic population spread thinly across thousands of miles before the invention of cheap printing and fast transportation.
One of the other difficulties with Jewish law is that after 2,500 or so years, so much has been written that the whole mass has gotten terribly unwieldy:
Once the Talmud was complete, legal scholarship was built on top of three layers. The first was the Torah. That was followed by rabbinic legislation and commentary and interpretation based on the Torah, culminating in the Mishnah. That was followed by commentary on the Mishnah, culminating in the Talmud. Scholarship thereafter consisted largely of commentary on the Talmud, which had the previous two layers embedded in it, along with additional legislation. Further layers were added as one or another work based on those sources–the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides is one example–itself became the subject of further commentary.
This has generally been resolved via books summarizing previous decisions accompanied by more detailed legal books if one needs them, and the development of the previously mentioned local or communal law. Of course, sometimes this led to conflicts between different levels of interpretation or commentary.
There follows an interesting discussion of how marriage customs and especially the laws around marriage could have been modified to increase parental control over whom their children marry, but it is too long to quote here–you will have to read the chapter yourself.
A theory on kosher rules:
Careful observance of such rules is evidence that the observer believes in the religion, since he is willing to bear substantial costs in order to conform to its requirements. The fact that he believe sin the religion means that he will be reluctant to sear, falsely, for fear of supernatural punishment.
Well, maybe. It’d be nice to have some data on the matter.
Maimonides [a famous Jewish legal scholar] goes on to describe in some detail the rules associated with the avenger of blood,t he heir of a killer’s victim, and the cities of refuge–of which, like kings of Israel, there had been none for more than a thousand years. A killer was supposed to go to one of the cities of refuge, be brought from there to the court of the city where the killing occurred, tried and, if guilty of deliberate murder, put to death by the avenger of blood. If found guilty of unintentional killing he was to be sent back to the city of refuge to remain there until the high priest, also nonexistent in Maimonides’ day, died. En route to or from the city of refuge he could be killed by the avenger of blood without penalty.
That looks rather like the remnant of a pre-existing feud system, untidily integrated into its replacement.
It’s late and I’m pretty tired, so let’s wrap things up. I’m sorry I don’t have more to say, but I’ve already hit the point of exhaustion and I said a lot on the subject back in Why Does my Fridge Have a Sabbath Mode? and The Talmud and the Constitution.