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‘We are obliged to follow law of the land’
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‘We are obliged to follow law of the land’

Questions for... Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe

Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe will be a featured attraction when Chabad of Southeast Morris County holds its seventh annual Jewish Law Symposium on Monday, Sept. 16, at the Birchwood Manor in Whippany.

Yaffe — dean of the Institute of American and Talmudic Law in New York and director of the Institute for Judaic Knowledge in Newton, Mass. — will discuss “When Law and Religion Collide: The Public Square, the Courtroom, and Ethical Punishment,” along with moderator and television journalist Jeff Greenfield, federal judge Freda L. Wolfson, and New York University law professor Stephen Gillers.

Yaffe discussed his views in a Sept. 10 phone interview with NJ Jewish News.

NJJN: How should Jewish law deal with secular laws in societies where Jews are in the minority?

Yaffe: In many areas the first thing to understand is…[w]e are obliged to follow the law of the land. There is a premise that if not for the rule of law, people would swallow each other alive. So we appreciate a legal regime, even if it isn’t perfect from a Jewish point of view. But let us say a law was passed that made a Jew abandon Judaism, such as a law that forbade circumcision, we would have to put ourselves on the line and take whatever penalties come from civil disobedience and the like.

Judaism sees itself as having a responsibility to humanity as a whole, so we have an obligation to inculcate the values we see as basic human values.

NJJN: Does the death penalty conflict with Jewish law?

Yaffe: The death penalty has a unique form in terms of justice. It can’t be fixed. Judaism is extremely skeptical of prison as a means of punishing crime. Judaism would like to see people take responsibility, give back to society, have their movements limited, and pay for what they did.

When it comes to murder, even if you have overwhelming evidence, Jewish courts permitted execution of people who were murderers in the Jewish community. So, in the case of egregious murders, we are absolutely not against the death penalty. However, the standard in Jewish law from 1,600 years ago is extremely similar to the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that exists today in American jurisprudence.

NJJN: How should insular Jewish communities deal with secular authorities in sexual abuse cases where there may be conflicts between reporting offenses to civil authorities and betraying Jews to outsiders?

Yaffe: We do not have the power to arrest people. We do not have the power to jail people. We do not have the power to register people as sex offenders. We do not have the power to stop them by legal means. Saving someone from potential sexual abuse is pikuah nefesh. It is literally life or death. You have to do it. You must immediately go to authorities to have arrests made. You pick up the phone and call 9-1-1. Period.

NJJN: What should the relationship between the government and religions be?

Yaffe: The importance of freedom of religion — which to me means the right of any religion to be heard loudly and clearly in the public square — does not mean the stifling of religion.

NJJN: What about the rights of atheists to not believe?

Yaffe: There must be absolute freedom of thought.

NJJN: How do you feel about the Ten Commandments in a courthouse or a nativity scene in front of a city hall before Christmas?

Yaffe: From my perspective, if it is a public square where all kinds of speech are permitted, you can’t cut out religious speech…. The broad-based premise is that belief in a supreme being is a fact of life that, like gravity, is built into our society. The First Amendment deals with the establishment of a church, not the evisceration or negation or forced secularization or any mention of a supreme being at all. Our society is based on belief on God and has room for every religion.

The Flat Earth Society has the right to push the idea that the earth is flat and that the moon landings were fake. But they do not have the right to take down the globes in every courthouse and every school because the vast majority of the people in this country understand the world is round.

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