Students find ancient texts of Talmud give them edge in modern law classes

April 12, 1991|By Noam Neusner

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Jon Lefkowitz is your average law student. He attends classes, catches up on his studying and worries about upcoming exams at the University of Maryland law school.

But on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, he goes by the first name Shmuel and studies the Talmud, an ancient Jewish law code, at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.

The Talmud spans thousands of pages and is one of the most important documents in Judaism, a compilation of both the laws and philosophy of that ancient faith.

It has also served as legal training wheels for several local law professors and students. All of them say their background in this complicated, often cryptic law code provided them with experience that proved invaluable in law school.

What can a 1,500 year-old document written in the Middle East have to do with torts, medical malpractice and the lofty debates of robed judges?

"The Talmud deals with many of the same areas that are studied in law school," said Professor Irving Breitowitz, who teaches at the UM law school in Baltimore and is a rabbi at a congregation in Silver Spring.

Besides having preserved an intellectual tradition that dates back to the days of Moses, the Talmud discusses solutions to problems duplicated in many modern courtroom squabbles. A student of the Talmud typically has studied real estate disputes, personal injury claims and bankruptcy, for example.

But the connection goes deeper than that.

"Talmud study teaches close analysis of texts," said Lawrence Katz, dean of the University of Baltimore law school.

"It gives a perspective, a methodology that strengthens their skill as a lawyer and as a teacher."

"The Talmud is predicated on the idea that there can be a system of law and justice," said Mr.Breitowitz. That can be helpful for young law students to see, "particularly at a time when lawyers are being attacked for a lack of ethical sensitivities."

The Talmud, he said, balances law on the notion of justice and human rights, a gratifying connection that can be forgotten in an age of litigation.

For Mr. Lefkowitz, who is in his first year of law school, studying the Talmud has an "internal motivation" that he doesn't always get from common law. While poring over several open books at once, Mr. Lefkowitz traces a Talmudic argument through intellectual nooks and analytical crannies. The experience, he said, is "studying for the sake of studying. It is an end in itself."

Yeshivas, or Jewish houses of study, don't require exams on the Talmud, Mr. Lefkowitz noted, and for that reason the two forms of study often differ in intensity as well.

In the classroom, he said, professors frequently follow reasoning that duplicates the logical steps of rabbis in long-ago Babylonia, one of the sites where the Talmud was compiled.

"There is a solid and identifying backbone in the Talmud," Mr. Lefkowitz said. "Moreover, it hasn't changed."

Perry Mason may not have shared Mr. Lefkowitz's background, but he would understand that it's not the style, but the substance that makes the lawyer. A student of the Talmud has pored over legal arguments that span hundreds of years and delve into the most oblique logic. Typically, law professors require the same skill in their classrooms.

"Taking an argument to its logical conclusion" is just one of the methods that the Talmud instills in a young mind, Mr. Breitowitz said.

Another former yeshiva student, now in his final year of law school at the University of Baltimore, is Nachman Rochkind. Having seen both legal systems in the classroom setting, Mr. Rochkind says a yeshiva student walks into his first law class with a background in legal study and reasoning, just one of the advantages won from study of the Talmud.

"The average law student tends to be very befuddled by the entire process . . . not because of lack of intelligence, but because they've probably never been exposed to that kind of reasoning before," Mr. Rochkind said, "whereas the average yeshiva student has to deal with that kind of reasoning on a daily basis."

"All law students are really starting at the same spot," said Anton Mack, assistant director of admissions at the UB law school. "[But] there are similarities in both areas of study, and a yeshiva student will benefit generously from having studied Talmudic law."

Although he could not provide any precise figures, Mr. Mack said yeshiva-trained law students have invariably done well, finishing in the top half of every class.

And while the admissions committee has no preference for any previous studies, a yeshiva student can offer a great deal.

"Ner Israel is a valuable resource for us. They prepare their students well," Mr. Mack said.

This may explain why Baltimore's law schools boast some professors and several students who pursue their legal studies alongside a close study of Talmud.

Besides, said Mr. Lefkowitz, the Talmud "is the legacy of our people. We are the people of the book. And this is the bok."

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