All right, I think you’ve probably had just about enough of law for a while. This is a summary and then I’ll start busting urban legends about archaeology and the Bible.
When I was getting my degree in legal studies, I had to take classes like political science and sociology, which I had avoided 25 years earlier getting my degree in Russian translation. The sociology class made the point that all legal systems do four things for their societies:
- Define membership in the society;
- Regulate activities within the society;
- Socialize members and provide solidarity opportunities;
- Support the economy underlying the society.
It is easy to see that Jewish law governs a complete society or culture, not just a religion, because it addresses all four of these issues, not just the socialization and solidarity part. About which I have said very little because, while there are plenty of urban legends about Jewish belief and ritual, you can find the truth on sites like myjewishlearning and judaism101.
The goal of the legal system in any society is to preserve that society according to its concept of its own nature or character. Anthony Trollope’s Palliser political novels sometimes use the term “the British constitution” even though there is no fundamental written document about this constitution. What he means seems more like what the British believe Britain should be like. He often lauds “British liberty” which, from my reading, seems to be the idea that the crown cannot arbitrarily deprive British subjects of their property, which sometimes happened under the Tudor and Stuart kings. What Americans mean by “liberty” adds freedom of speech and so on.
The goal of the Jewish legal system is to run a Jewish society or culture. Individual whims do not count if they conflict with issues like rejecting gods who are not Gd. This goes so far as to criminalize Jews who behave like non-Jews, which includes homosexual relations and witchcraft as well as idol-worship. Jewish culture establishes liberty in the British sense, with the basic principle that if A wants to take something from B, A has the burden of proof that the transfer is correct. This is the meaning of the story of the vineyard in Kings I chapter 21.
The insistence on running a Jewish culture also means that modern concepts of “majority rule” don’t apply. Jewish courts are not run by elected judges or juries, but by experts in the law who themselves operate by majority rule. This doesn’t mean that non-experts are shut out of contributing to court cases. Mishnah explicitly says that if somebody who is not already a judge and who also is not a witness in the case, speaks up in court on behalf of the defendant, the judges determine whether his statements are relevant, probative, and legally acceptable and then “they seat him among them.”
Next week I’ll discuss more differences between Jewish and American law.