From the Academy: Law

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Suzanne Last Stone serves as University Professor of Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, where she directs the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization. As a visiting professor, she has taught at Harvard, Columbia, Penn, Princeton, Hebrew University, and Tel Aviv. She co-edits Diné Israel, a bilingual, peer-reviewed journal of Jewish law published with the Tel Aviv Law School. Her influential articles include “In Pursuit of the Countertext: The Turn to the Jewish Legal Model in Contemporary American Legal Theory,” published in the Harvard Law Review in 1993, and “The Jewish Tradition and Civil Society” published in Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society (Princeton University Press, 2002). As a pioneering teacher and scholar, she demonstrates the crucial relationship between Jewish and American legal thinking.

Suzanne Last StoneHow would you define Jewish law?

Jewish law is the term used in the American legal academy for the study of the normative texts of Judaism (the halakha) from the perspective of comparative law and legal theory.

The field engages the entire rabbinic legal corpus and is a pure academic discipline. The theoretical and interdisciplinary focus of the American legal academy is having a major impact on the study of Jewish law, expanding its range from doctrinal to jurisprudential studies and stretching its boundaries. This approach views law as a cultural activity to be analyzed in light of philosophical, religious, emotional, and literary dimensions that undergird it. So, scholars in the field of Jewish law often deal broadly with Jewish thought, asking how legal texts both illuminate and reflect larger worldviews.

Still, there are scholars outside the legal academy who question whether there is such a thing as “Jewish law,” which can be studied. The dispute centers on whether halakha, especially in its formative period, counts as “law,” let alone a “system.” Rabbinic texts do not easily fit the popular notion that the word “law” should be reserved for rules imposed by officials and backed by sanctions. Fortunately, this definition of law is not the only one possible and, in fact, the fascination with Jewish law in the American legal academy arises precisely because it departs from the model of official state law.