Off the Pulpit

American Law and Jewish Law

Many scholars of Jewish and American law have noted a fundamental difference in the underpinnings of the two legal systems. American law is built primarily on a notion of rights and Jewish law on obligations and responsibilities.

As with all such generalities, there are many exceptions. But everywhere in Jewish law is the question of what I owe to others and what I owe to God. Ramban wrote that one can be “a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah” – in other words, one can formally obey the rules of the Torah and yet be an unkind person. In truth, it would not be easy; general prohibitions such as “you shall be holy” (Lev.19:2) on which verse Ramban first made that comment, exist to instruct us to be better than mere rote observance.

Therefore, when questions arise of social accommodations such as, “should I wear a mask when near someone who might be afraid of the virus?” or “Do I have to let this pedestrian walk when I my car has the right of way?” as Americans some react with an assertion of our freedom. Judaism would have us prioritize kindness and consideration. “Love your neighbor as yourself” may not be in the constitution, but it is in the Torah.