Exploring The American And Talmudic Legal Process

Straus Center and Honors Program Event Provides Practical Comparison of American and Talmudic Law

Why do appellate courts exist? What role do fellow judges play in the decision-making process? What is the most difficult legal case you have ever decided?

These were all questions posed to both Judge Joseph Greenaway and Rabbi Yona Reiss at an engaging event hosted by Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought together with the Stern College for Women’s S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program to discuss their experiences in law and how the American and Talmudic systems approach legal circumstances.

Professor Adina Levine, Judge Joseph Greenaway, Rabbi Yona Reiss
Professor Adina Levine moderates the discussion between Judge Joseph Greenaway and Rabbi Yona Reiss

The panel discussion, moderated by Professor Adina Levine, who is instructing the Stern Honors course, “Comparative American and Talmudic Law”—sponsored by the Straus Center—touched on issues of enforceability, criminal justice systems, anti-trust laws, and the role of lawyers in the court. In dynamic conversation with each other and the audience, Greenaway and Rabbi Reiss discussed parts of the legal decision process as well as instances when both American and Talmudic law must be considered.

“I have found that it is very helpful for a dayan [Jewish law judge] to have a legal background,” said Rabbi Reiss, who has practiced as an attorney and is now av beth din [leader of the rabbinical court] of the Chicago Rabbinical Council. “Often, Beth Din decisions require application of the Jewish law principle of dina demalchusa dina [the law of the land is the law] with respect to public policy regulations such as bankruptcy law and Section 8 housing issues, and it is important to be familiar with these laws. Also, it is vital for a beth din to comply with the procedural requirements of arbitration law in order to guarantee the enforceability of its decisions.”

“Law is foundational and federal court it is no different,” said Greenaway, a federal judge who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and also serves as adjunct professor at YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

The panelists were asked about the path that led them to become a judge in court. Greenaway came to the Court of Appeals after attending Harvard Law School, serving as clerk for a judge, and working at the firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel. Prior to joining the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Rabbi Reiss, a Yadin Yadin musmach of YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Yale Law School graduate, was an associate at the international law firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, the director of the Beth Din of America, and served as the dean of RIETS.

One aspect of decision-making that sets a federal court and a beth din apart is the role of precedence in constructing a legal decision. “The most exciting thing for me as a judge,” said Greenaway, “is when there is no precedence in a case which requires me to draw on all my experiences to draw an analogy and make an argument because law is foundational. In terms of precedence, we rely much more on recency.”  Rabbi Reiss on the other hand, explained how precedence and longstanding arguments are crucial to a Beth Din decision, which can even date back to the times of the mishna. “In Jewish law, the more authentic a judgment, the more authoritative it will be deemed by the judicial panel.”

A similar feature of both courts is that the possibility for human error is built into the legal systems, according to the panelists. Greenaway spoke about the Innocence Project at Cardozo which is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people and reforming the justice system to prevent future misfortune. Rabbi Reiss described how rabbinic courts have a built-in appellate system.

Both presenters explained the details of some thought-provoking and complex cases that have arisen throughout their tenure as a judge. Rabbi Reiss spoke about a case in which an American beth din utilized Israeli law to send a recalcitrant husband who refused to give his wife a get [Jewish writ of divorce] to Israeli prison. Greenaway described a case in which legal factors restricted him to grant restitution to the plaintiffs for extensive labor in a German car factory during World War II, even though his moral resolution wanted to help them.

Rachel Rolnick, a junior considering attending law school after graduation, said that not many Honors events have featured legal professionals. Now enrolled in Levine’s course, Rolnick said, “It is exciting to see all the aspects of American and Talmudic law that we discussed in class play a role daily in the career of a judge and av bet din.”

For sophomore Emma Mael, this event set the tone for the rest of her time spent with the Honors Program. “This event, in conjunction with Professor Levine’s course, taught how many similarities and interactions there are between Jewish courts and American courts and how much civil law affects Jewish courts. I also loved seeing how much respect the two speakers had for the work the other does.”

A recording of the event can ne found on YUTorah.