No argument here: Students drawn to U.C. Berkeley class in Jewish law

At U.C. Berkeley’s School of Law, all students take the usual courses in torts and contracts. But for one small group of lawyers-in-training, Torah, Talmud and Maimonides also are on the syllabus.

Every Thursday, these students show up for “Topics in Jewish Law,” a class taught in tandem with professor Ken Bamberger and Rabbi David Kasher.

Together they contrast the American and Jewish systems of jurisprudence. They talk legal philosophy. They take up topics like abortion, Good Samaritan laws and the environment. Most of all, they ponder fundamental questions about the nature of law.

“[The class] throws into relief the question of why one follows the law,” Bamberger says, “whether law and morality can be separate, and what is the law’s view of the truth.”

Kasher’s day job is rabbi-educator at Berkeley Hillel (located just on the other side of Bancroft Way). Last year, Kasher led a few informal talks sponsored by the Jewish Law Students Association, and now has stepped up to become a faculty lecturer. He says Jewish ethics and law school make for “a natural fit.”

U.C. Berkeley law professor Ken Bamberger (left) and Rabbi David Kasher examine ancient Jewish law books. photo/james block

“The law school was a logical place to offer programs because Judaism is a particularly legalistic religion,” Kasher notes. “It’s not a stretch to talk about law and Judaism.”

While many of Bamberger’s students happen to be Jewish, the course is open to all. One thing the students do share is intense intellectual curiosity.

“The opportunity to think laterally about the law is rare and luxurious in law school,” says third-year student James McNamara. “You’re trapped in little disciplinary cages in most classes. This is a great opportunity to stretch sideways. It’s pleasurable to think for thinking’s sake.”

A former clerk for retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Bamberger says one of the distinctions between the U.S. and Jewish legal systems is that the former focuses on rights — e.g., the Bill of Rights — while the Jewish system, grounded in divine origin, is much more about obligations.

He cites education as an example. “In America we turn education into a right,” Bamberger says. “In Jewish law, universal education is traditionally a high priority but it’s not framed as a right, but as an obligation on the part of the parents to educate their children, and an obligation on the community as well.”

On the first day of class, Bamberger and Kasher took students to view the Robbins Collection of rare law books, housed on campus. Among the thousands of volumes are several treasures in Jewish law, including an 18th century Mishnah from Iraq, written in Judeo-Arabic dialect; a Yemenite volume of commentaries by Maimonides dating from the Middle Ages; and a 16th century responsa, published in Salonica and including the first-ever query to rabbis from the New World (it had to do with the reversed seasons north and south of the equator, and whether Jews should observe certain mitzvahs at the same time of year).

Bamberger and Kasher take the students there to demonstrate the rich history behind their discussions.

“I’m reading these texts for the first time,” says student Karen Gal-Or, a native of Israel brought up in Pittsburg. “I had never seen them first hand. [Examining] the Robbins Collection is like studying Constitutional law in the National Archives. You think these Orthodox texts are rigid, but really they are very thoughtful and open to a lot of interpretations.”

In Judaism, Torah and Talmud are considered sacred documents, but Kasher points out that U.S. law has its parallels.

“We see the Constitution as having some sanctity as well,” he says. “On what authority does the Constitution derive its sense of sanctity? It’s a very different notion of authority.”

Student Emily Tredeau is not Jewish, but she is impressed with the legal traditions of Jewish law. She cites as an example the high bar the rabbis set to carry out capital punishment.

“If all the rabbis vote unanimously to convict, then the person is acquitted,” she says, “because that much certainty shows something went wrong. If things were going normally there would be some debate. That’s a real presumption of innocence.”

A New York native, Bamberger grew up in a Reform household, but even as a youth enjoyed studying Jewish texts with his rabbi. He went on to attend Harvard Law, and practiced constitutional law in Washington, D.C., and Boston before moving to Berkeley.

“I love academia,” he says. “I missed being in an environment where people were moving back and forth from the big picture. Coming here, I have the opportunity to engage with students and rethink what we want lawyers to be.”

So far those students seem delighted with the experience.

Third-year law student and Berkeley native Laura Weitzman grew up in a Jewish home absent any religion. Now she regularly attends Torah study. She says the class has been helpful in building on her foundation, both as a lawyer and a Jew.

“In this class you see forest for the trees,” Weitzman says, “and you see the sky through the forest because you’re comparing the two legal systems.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.