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.

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