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Fall 2022 Course

Change in Jewish Law

Prerequisite: None

Exam Type: One Day Take-home

History is encoded in legal documents and systems. This is a truism of academic approaches to law, and applies just as well to studying Jewish tradition. But for some works–such as the Talmuds and the Hebrew bible–this rule of the thumb takes on a more particular meaning. The Babylonian Talmud captures different moments in the Jewish legal tradition. Among other things, this feature invites us insight into the motivations for the interpretations and legal outcomes we find there, and the opportunity to trace their thinking about these differences between an old text and a new one, and between different schools of thought near-contemporary with the Talmud.

A premise of this course is that the rules, principles and sources we call Jewish law develop by continual reinterpretation of the same texts in different social contexts. The central concern of the course will be the mechanics, inspirations of change in Jewish law, and how we may discern and understand them.

The topics of our readings will be varied (kashruth, mesuravot get, laws of sabbath, damages). Our themes will be the role of innovators; of traditions shut down by the talmudic system itself; orality and literacy; the source of authority in Jewish law; the resolution of disputes. Primary texts taken from biblical, tannaitic, talmudic writings and early commentators, as well as some medieval and modern responsa. Secondary reading from scholarship on Jewish law, on change in law from other traditions, and legal anthropology.