Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Recap of our final lesson

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

The Case of the Considerate Contractor
The main question of this lesson focuses on unsolicited goods or services. Can a benefactor legally and ethically demand compensation from the beneficiary? We began with a case in which a contractor, Adam Klein, noticed a house in desperate need of repair. Unable to contact the homeowners, he went ahead and completed the job. Afterwards, he justifiably wanted to be paid both for the materials and labor.

To address this question, we turned to a similar case in the Talmud. The general ruling is that if an owner insists that he did not want the improvement done to his property and that he would be willing to live without it, then he is not required to pay. If, however, he seems satisfied with it, but is trying to take advantage of the situation, then the court enjoins the beneficiary to compensate the craftsman for the lowest going rate for this sort of service.
The Case of the Discount Broker
The second case differs in that the service provided was repayment of a loan. Loans are quite different for many reasons. One of the most compelling, according to Jewish law, is that loans can often be negotiated according to various terms. Thus, the debtor would perhaps have been able to secure a better payment plan had he negotiated himself. Jewish law therefore rules that this debtor is neither obligated to repay the person from whom he had originally borrowed the money, nor the person who repaid the loan unbidden. However, if the loan was “purchased,” rather than repaid, the debtor would now be obligated to repay the perso who had “purchased” the loan.
The Case of the Missing Half Million
Our last case illustrated a fascinating twist in this principle. This time, one man owed another a million dollars, and the latter owed this sum to the bank. Due to difficult economic conditions, the first man was only able to scrape together a half a million dollars. He knew that this wouldn’t appease his creditor, so he went directly to the bank, which, in turn, forgave the loan. At first, the creditor was content, since his bank-loan was forgiven. However, when he found out that his debtor had only paid half a million, he demanded the other half, claiming that only half of this loan between these two men was forgiven. Can he rightfully sue for this sum or not?

The key principle, unique to Jewish law, is attributed to Rabbi Nathan and derived from a passage about responsibilities towards someone’s property in another person’s possession in the Book of Leviticus. The principle asserts that when a debtor owes money to a creditor who owes money to a third party, the original debtor may clear both debts by paying the third party directly. Applying this to our case, the first man who negotiated with the bank was thereby able to clear both debts, and the middleman’s case was overruled.
A Chassidic Perspective
Throughout this course, we have discussed the mystical underpinnings of ownership. Our lessons have emphasizes the difference between secular and Jewish law – a pragmatic approach in order to maintain justice in society, versus a system of revealing an underlying, divine truth. Every object encompasses divine sparks, and it is within the power of its owner to elevate them. When ownership is transferred, the divine sparks become associated with the new owner. Similarly, when money is lent, it is as if the creditor has a lien on all the sparks belonging to the debtor. Thus, in accordance with Rabbi Nathan’s principle, when money is lent twofold, the sparks of the initial debtor become associated with the final creditor. This reflects his ability to settle the accounts directly with the third party.
Thank you again for joining, and I very much look forward to seeing you at our next JLI Course, Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Book of Genesis.

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