Thursday, February 26, 2009

Billerica man gets a ticket out of jail...

Nasty Neighbors? Lesson 4:

Ever heard a nasty neighbor story? There is now a website – - dedicated to exposing nasty neighbors and lauding good ones. It describes itself as, “the first real estate search engine of its kind, helping you find troublesome neighbors before you sign the paperwork on your new house, condo or apartment.” The site includes detailed maps, outlining each neighborhood house by house. Users can highlight individual houses, label the “good neighbors” in green, or the “rotten neighbors” in red, and they can also elaborate on their tales of misery.

For while the law is limited in the kinds of behavior it can prohibit, it seems that there is no end to the number of ways that neighbors can make each other miserable. Common courtesy, it seems, is not always very common.

Jewish law has some unique mechanisms, however, to enforce neighborly relations and ethical conduct. We’ll take a fascinating look at how the courts deal approach “mentchlichkeit” this week in Lesson Four of You Be the Judge.

Looking forward to seeing you at the Chabad Torah Centre next Tuesday, 7:30pm.

'I'm afraid of Mr. Murphy,' witness testifies in civil trial

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Intro Lesson 4: The Neighbor's Advantage

Lesson 3 Recap:

Thank you for attending our third lesson of You Be The Judge. Here’s a quick recap of the session:

Deciding Disputed Ownership in the Absence of Proof

Our lesson began with the case of Thomas Law Wilcox, who found a shopping bag full of historical papers in his late stepmother’s home. After advertising for an auction, several government officials obtained a temporary restraining order to prevent the sale of the papers, declaring the State of South Carolina their rightful owner. Generally, gubernatorial papers do belong to the state. At the same time, a fundamental legal principle is that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Thus, in order to challenge the status quo, it is the responsibility of the plaintiff to prove the other party’s claim is invalid.

Turning to the Jewish tradition, we reviewed a classic Talmudic passage in which two men grasp a single garment, presenting counterclaims of ownership. Such cases are often resolved by splitting the item, or selling it and dividing its value. However, if only one party has possession of an item, the possessor of the item is presumed to be the owner, since most people are averse to “breaking and entering” in order to steal an item which is not theirs.

Matters become more complicated, though, when the dispute involves land or cattle. People are less reluctant to move onto abandoned property, or to take cattle which is normally kept outdoors. Thus, in the case of real estate or livestock, and the possessor is presumed owner only if three years have passed since the onset of possession.

A Modern Talmudic Case

In a recent case brough before a rabbinic court, two men argued regarding ownership of a bike. Edry admitted stealing the bike from the bike rack in front of Soleimani’s house. However he claimed that the seller was a crook and had already sold the bike to him before Soleimani.

To resolve this case, the first step is to establish the classification of the bike. In one way, it is similar to inanimate property because it does not move on its own – so one might apply the principle that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” At the same time, it resembles cattle in that it is kept outside. Since one is less hesitant to steal from outside of a home, it is possible to invoke the rule requiring demonstration of a history of undisputed ownership.

A unique principle in Jewish law, migu, can also pertain to this case. It applies when a litigant brings a claim, in the absence of witnesses, and it is impossible to prove or disprove it. If the claim could have been stated in a way more advantageous to the person’s position, the migu argument would dictate that the claim, as stated, should be believed. According to this, since Edry freely admitted seizing the bike, the court may assume that he is telling the truth and took what was rightfully his.

The Legal and the Mystical

We conclude by reflecting on the mystical significance of these ownership laws. Early in the lesson, we reviewed the text in which two men present both claim to own the same garment. Similar arguments are made by souls standing before the heavenly tribunal, seeking to claim the reward for mitzvot performed during the souls’ lifetime. Mitzvot are often referred to as the garments of the soul. Each soul has a right to the mitzvot performed by the body it inhabitated during its lifetime. At the same time, every person is shaped and guided by mentors, teachers, parents and friends who also claim partial ownership to those good deeds. The souls thus stand before the Heavenly Tribunal, arguing over how to divide the the value of the soul’s “spiritual garments.” The Mishnah ultimately concludes that both the soul of the one who performed the mitzvah as well as the souls of those whose influenced in its performance share in the reward.

Thank you again for joining, and I very much look forward to seeing you next week for lesson four.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Friday, February 20, 2009

Proof of Ownership

Harlee, a Pomeranian, is a little dog who has caused a whole lot of trouble – and a heated court case – in Spokane County, Washington State. The Graham family owned Harlee since he was a whelp, but on July 17, 2007, he wandered away from their home. Marcia and Richard Graham immediately began posting signs, placing advertisements and making phone calls to local animal shelters. Their efforts bore no fruit.

Two weeks later, on July 29, Harlee was found and taken to the SpokAnimal Shelter. After the 72-hour requisite waiting period, he was adopted by James Notti. About a month later, through a social grapevine, the Grahams located Harlee.

A huge dispute ensued. Both Graham and Notti held valid claims to Harlee. The Graham family desperately sought out their lost pet. At the same time, Notti, who had legally adopted Harlee, did not want to give him up.

In cases of ownership, many courts say that possession is nine-tenths of the law. But does this apply to animals that can move about freely and wander off on whim?

Our third lesson of You Be the Judge will consider this question – as well as compelling arguments in cases in which both parties present very legitimate – albeit mutually exclusive – claims. Additionally, in cases unlike Harlee, where it is impossible to trace the history of ownership, on whom does the burden of proof rest?

Find out in our third lesson!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Intro Lesson 3: Burden of Proof

Lesson 2 Recap:

Thank you for attending our second lesson of You Be The Judge II. Here’s a quick recap of the session:

The Accidental Treasure: A Secular Analysis

We began with the case of Corliss v. Wenner. In this scenario, an employee of the Anderson Asphalt Paving Company found several rolls of gold coins concealed underneath soil that he was excavating. American law classifies such a find as “mislaid property;” this means that it was intentionally placed in its location, but then the original owner either forgot or was otherwise unable to retrieve it. If the original owner cannot be found, secular law provisionally awards the mislaid property to the current property owner rather than to the finder.

The Accidental Treasure: A Talmudic Analysis

We examined a question addressed to Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman concerning a worker who found several barrels of gold coins. A key point of Jewish law is that a person must have knowledge of an object in order to accept ownership of that object. Thus, a homeowner would not necessarily gain title over treasure found on the property. We briefly reviewed two other cases in which a business transaction included a hidden value, and established that according to this Talmudic principle, the person who first became aware of the value is its rightful owner.

In the case of finding a treasure underground, the Talmud differentiates based on its location- in an “old wall” or a “new wall.” The former likely dates back to antiquity, bearing no connection whatsoever to the current homeowner. If the latter, however, probably belonged to the homeowner’s parents or grandparents, then the homeowner would automatically gain possession through the laws of inheritance.

Otherwise, the finder would have a valid claim. It is also necessary to look into employment laws before deciding the final possessor, since one could argue that if someone were being paid to work for a day, such a windfall would defer to the employer. According to Jewish law, if a worker were being paid to do a specific task, such as find treasures, then the treasure would obviously belong to the employer. And employee however, who is hired to perform some task unrelated to the search for treasure would rightfully be able to keep any secondary objects while performing the work-related duties.

A Mystical Understanding of Ownership

We concluded our class with a brief overview of a mystical perspective on ownership. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic Movement, taught that every object contains a mystical reality. Within every object lies “divine sparks,” comprised of G-dly energy that constitutes the essential being of that object. Every individual is responsible for elevating the divine sparks association with the spiritual roots of that person’s soul. Te objects containing those sparks become that person’s physical possessions. Ownership represents the association between the soul and the divine sparks present in the owned object. Thus, Torah law does not create ownership, but reveals and responds to this mystical reality.

Thank you again for joining, and I very much look forward to seeing you next week for lesson three.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lesson Two: The Treasure's Rightful Owner

Dear JLI Student,    

Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck. - Children's Aphorism   

We’ve all found pennies, and perhaps even nickels or dimes. Maybe you were fortunate enough to find a larger bill of money: A dollar, a twenty or a hundred?   

A few years ago, Art Cochell, Floris, Iowa, was dismantling an old clothesline pole in his backyard.  When he removed the pole from the ground, several coins slid out.  Excited by this unexpected discovery, he returned to the area with a metal detector and some tools and continued to unveil a generous stash of coins.  In a media interview, Cochell said that, “this is a dream find for metal detectors.”   

Matters become more complicated, though, when there are a handful of claimants.  In some cases, there can be a whole host of potential takers.  If, for example, the treasure were found on someone else’s property, the homeowner might claim that it belongs to him.  The finder will also like feel like the treasure’s rightful owner. Past owners of the property are likely to come forth as well.   

There are other kinds of accidental treasures as well—when a purchased item, for example, turns out to be worth more than anyone expected. Our second lesson will explore how we disentangle competing claims in these kinds of situations.   

I look forward to seeing you in class this week.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Intro Lesson Two: The Accidental Treasure

Life Lessons from the Game of Cricket; Rabbi Moss

Question of the Week:
The one Jewish ideal that I can't get my head around is Moshiach - the belief in the coming of a messianic era. What good is achieved by awaiting some future time when there will be peace on earth? Shouldn't we focus on the present, rather than dreaming about the future? Why is the belief in the coming of the messiah so central to Judaism?
Some of the deepest truths I learnt from my cricket coach. He was a sharp guy, with a keen eye for detail. He would observe my batting style and point out what I needed to work on. But I gained more than just cricket advice.
One consistent flaw in my batting was my follow through. The coach noticed that as soon as my bat hits the ball my arms lock and the bat stops. No good, he said. You need a full follow through. After hitting the ball you must keep swinging, making a complete semi-circle in the air.
This made no sense to me. What difference does it make what I do with the bat after I have hit the ball? Contact has been made between bat and ball, and whatever power I have put into the shot is there already. Will the ball travel further if I follow through? I can understand why backswing is important - the more I pull the bat back, the more momentum the swing has. But once the ball is hit, who cares what I do with the bat? Whether I keep swinging or stop, throw the bat away or eat it should make no difference to the ball that has already been hit. Why follow through?
My coach gave me the answer. The end point shapes the whole. The follow through doesn't begin after you hit the ball; it begins as soon as you lift the bat. A swing that will end in a full follow through is a different swing entirely. What will be effects what is. The destination influences the whole journey.
This principle - that the end point shapes the whole - is true in cricket, baseball, tennis and golf. And it's true in life too. What you believe about tomorrow shapes how you view today. Where your life is headed determines how your life is lived.
If the world is randomly hurtling through space, bound to eventually collide with an asteroid and return to vapour, then human history is a directionless romp through time, we are going nowhere, and my life certainly has no significance. Why work, why build, why love if it all ends in nothingness?
But if the world is heading toward a purpose for which it was created, if human history is a long journey with a clear and wonderful destination, then my today matters. My efforts today can bring the world a little closer to its purpose. My lifetime builds on the lifetimes that came before me, and gives a better world to those who will come after me, edging ever closer to the times of the Moshiach. 
We are not just propelled by our past; we are beckoned by our future. Believing in a messianic future, a world of peace and divine closeness, inspires me to make today a step further in the journey. The Moshiach ideal makes the world better now. It may even improve my batting average.

Weekly E*Torah by Rabbi Avrohom Altein

Real Relaxation!

This Shabbat, we read the "Ten Commandments".  One of the most important of these commandments is observing the Shabbat. Shabbat provides us with relaxation and good food, but more importantly it is a time to connect with the more spiritual side of our lives and spend time in prayer and study.
Most of us know that a Jew is not supposed to work on Shabbat, but few are aware that a Shabbat-observant Jew would refuse to drive a car, or switch on a light switch, on Shabbat.  The question is obvious, isn't it much more work to walk a half-hour to synagogue than driving a car? And what work is there in turning on a light switch?
The explanation to these and similar questions is that the Torah does not prohibit work on Shabbat!  The Hebrew equivalent of not working would be "Lo Taavod!" But that is not what the Torah says. Instead, the fourth commandment reads, "Lo Taase Melacha." An accurate translation to English would be, "Do not create a crafted product."
G-d created the world in six days, but on the seventh He ceased building and creating, and withdrew into himself. That is what we are meant to do as well. During the six days of the week, we too build and create; we involve ourselves with the world, accomplishing and producing. On Shabbat, though, we withdraw and contemplate our own souls and purpose in life.
So, it is not work that is prohibited, but the building and creating as part of our involvement with the world.  Baking, for example, is forbidden on Shabbat because it creates bread; writing creates letters and pictures; and the car ignition and the light switch create fire and light. A Jew needs to set aside one day each week when all outside affairs are put aside; a space and time to discover his own Neshama, the Jewish soul. That is what the Shabbat is all about.
There is an added fantastic benefit to Shabbat. Nowadays, the family unit is under tremendous pressure. Each individual is preoccupied and it is rare that all family members share time together. And even when they do, their mood is hardly relaxed.
The Friday night Shabbat table is great at cementing family relationships. Imagine the entire family sitting together, relaxing, enjoying, and focusing on the more important elements of life - the spiritual side of things.  Nothing in the world can duplicate the serenity and relaxed atmosphere of the Shabbat candles, the Kiddush cup, the Shabbat Challah, and the Shabbat table.

Weekly Smile 
Yes, You Will!

  People get caught up in the rat race of making money and lose track of their families and their own soul. Only when there is trouble (tzores), do they visit a synagogue. Isn't it much better to do it out of pleasure than out of desperation?
An inspector with Canada Revenue walks into a syna­gogue and asks to see the rabbi. He is shown into the rabbi's study and offered a seat.
"Rabbi," says the inspector. "A member of your syna­gogue, a Mr. Klutz, states on his tax return that he has donated $100,000 to your synagogue. Is that correct?"
The rabbi answers, "Yes, he will."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lesson One Recap

Thank you for participating in the first lesson of You Be The Judge II. Here’s a quick recap of the session:

Can a murderer inherit? A Secular Analysis

We revie
wed the case of sixteen-year-old Elmer Palmer. Palmer’s grandfather remarried and then considered changing his will to include the new wife. Young Elmer feared losing a portion of his inheritance. He thus took preemptive measures and poisoned his grandfather. On one hand, it seems ludicrous to allow the murderer to inherit his victim. At the same time, it is hard to stipulate what the deceased “would have wanted.” A killer is already punished for his crime (by serving time in jail); it is fair to penalize him a second time to depriving him of his inheritance?

The Nature of a Will

Secular law sees the purpose of a will as a means of carrying out the wishes of the deceased. According to this, the most powerful argument against Elmer would be that, had the grandfather known, it is quite unlikely that he would have wanted Elmer to inherit. Yet the defense could argue that despite “could have, would have and should have,” it is impossible to read minds. It is our job to simply carry out the directions in the will.

A Talmudic Legal Analysis

Our Jewish analysis began with the Biblical story of King Achav. This king murdered his cousins in order to acquire their vineyard. He was then visited by the Prophet Elijah who asked, “Have you murdered and also inherited?” The Ohr Same’ach, concluded on the basis of this story that, according to the letter of Torah law, one is permitted to inherit as a consequence of a criminal act. Devar Yehoshua affirmed that the rabbinic courts are afforded extralegal authority and would have rightfully confiscated the vineyard had they known the truth about the case.

Legal Comparison

Earlier in the lesson, we discussed secular legal systems. They attempt to be pragmatic, essentially creating clear rules, conventions, and expectations. Such systems thereby ensure the smooth functioning of society. Torah law, on the other hand, has a very different nature: it reflects a “divine truth” and teaches us to live in a way aligned with the essential divine order of the universe. Yet within Torah law, there is an understanding that evil people can subvert the law for their own purposes. The Torah therefore accords rabbinical courts certain extralegal rights in order to deter them through monetary penalties or other consequences.

The Jewish Conception of Inheritance

Thus, we established the secular view of a will as the best means of carrying out the wishes of the deceased. The Jewish concept of an inheritance, on the other hand, reflects a natural, innate bond between parent and child—much like their shared genetic makeup—and this bond exists as a natural truth, regardless of love, affection or actions. According to this, the murderer would inherit, yet the rabbinic courts would confiscate the inheritance.

The Torah as an Inheritance

We concluded our lesson with a discussion of a Biblical verse that compares the Torah to an inheritance, naming us as its heirs. The Torah reflects a natural bond between the Jewish People and G-d, regardless of knowledge, background, affiliation or observance.

On a deeper level, not only is an inheritance transferred from parent to child. Rather, the next generation actually moves into the domain of the previous generation, adopting its spiritual mission and bringing it to completion. Thus we take the place of all the previous generations, all the way back to our forefathers who stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah.

Thank you again for joining, and I very much look forward to seeing you next week for lesson two.

Economy Tidbits

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Experience at the Community Shabbat Dinner

On Friday, January 16, 2009, my husband, daughter & I had the pleasure of sharing in the experience of a community Shabbat dinner through the Chabad Jewish Learning Institute. The dinner was held at the home of Rabbi Shmuly and Adina Altein, who showed us and all of their guests first class hospitality. The environment was warm and haimish, the experience was meaningful and the food was delicious! I would recommend this experience to everyone and look forward to the next community Shabbat dinner.

Andrea Lefkovitz

Register now by calling 414-5624!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Last Will and Testament

One of the things that makes travel such a rich experience is that it helps us see our own lives and culture in a new light. We start to question things that we took for granted and assumed were natural. We rethink the conventions of our society, sometimes recognizing their arbitrariness, and at other times, gaining a new appreciation of our own native customs.

It is with the mindset of the world traveler that I welcome you to to our upcoming JLI course, You Be The Judge II. As we enter the age of the global economy and increasingly permeable borders, we will be challenged to move beyond our local interpretations of statutes and take a panoramic view of law. By stepping outside the legal system we are most accustomed to, we can appreciate diversity of thought, and place a mirror to our own unspoken assumptions. By learning the language of legal discourse, we gain new tools for the reshaping of our world.

In our first lesson, we will examine what happens when the letter of the law and its spirit are at odds. What happens when something “feels” so right or so wrong, but the law rules otherwise? Are letter and spirit two separate entities, fated to be irreconcilably at odds?

What happens, for example, when a murderer attempts to inherit his victim? To answer this question, we’ll have to explore differences between Jewish and American conceptions of the “Last Will and Testament.” Must this document be followed as written once the testator dies? Or are there circumstances in which a court is free to reinterpret the will in light of particular circumstances, events or new information?

For the most part, courts have found it ludicrous to allow these murderers to inherit the fruits of their sin. Jewish law, however, has an unusual analysis of this situation that sheds interesting light on the nature of ownership in general and inheritance in particular.

I look forward to some lively discussion and debate as we try to make sense of this outrageous situation.