|A Proposal for a High
School Course in Torah Ethics
Professor Steven H. (Shlomo Chaim) Resnicoff, Esq.
Ira (Yitzchak) Kasdan, Esq.
A Proposal for a High School Course in Torah Ethics
in conjunction with The Center for Halacha and American Law
Recently, one of the authors was contacted by his local Yeshiva high school. Would he be willing to coach the Yeshiva moot court team? Agreeable, he was sent and reviewed the materials -- prepared by the State agency that was overseeing the competition -- that the students used in the program. To say the least, he was keenly disappointed. Highly professional in appearance and well organized, the materials left much to be desired, in his opinion. The case that the Yeshiva team would "litigate" revolved around a drug deal gone awry and the sentencing of the youthful offender. Real world issues to be sure, but hopefully foreign events for the typical Yeshiva boy and girl.
Why not, he thought, take this secular program and infuse it with elements of kedusha, (holiness)? Why not reshape the moot court competition as an advocacy program that teaches the interaction between Halacha and secular law? That teaches students about the issur of arkaous (the general prohibition against secular court litigation); the importance of dina dmalchusa dina (the need to abide by the laws of the secular authority)? One that introduces students to various Halachos from that oft-disregarded and forgotten part of Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat (dealing with contract, tort and similar interpersonal and business-related issues)? That allows the students to argue not only before a "civil" court but also to a Beis Din (Jewish court)? The possibilities and permutations abounded . . .
Deceit, fraud and injustice increasingly pervade the secular world in which we live. Unethical behavior has become so commonplace, that even when it is clearly perceived, relatively few witnesses are surprised. An ethical callus develops, preventing the expression of any moral outrage and making it continuously easier for individuals to misbehave. Indeed, white collar crimes and other forms of deceit have become so routine, that some who previously comported themselves with scruples have openly reevaluated whether they, too, should not get their "share" of the dishonest dollars that others seem to harvest so painlessly.
Individual Orthodox Jews sometimes are influenced by the corrupted standards of the secular society that surrounds them. When such Jews succumb, Rachmana litzlon (Heaven forbid ), to such influences, the result may not only be tragic for them personally but may also involve Chillul HaShem (the desecration of the Name of Heaven).
The secular world has recently begun to respond to the lapse in ethical standards. Increasing numbers of professional schools require ethics courses. Government regulatory bodies in many states require practicing professionals to fulfill continuing education requirements with mandatory ethics education components. It is time for the Orthodox community to respond in kind. The Aleph Institute's Center for Halacha and American Law ("The Center"), with which the authors are associated, proposes that the battle begin much earlier than professional school. The Center suggests that one step that can be taken to inculcate Halachic-guided behavior early on is the development of a Jewish high school course on Torah ethics in the business world. Herein, we briefly describe the course The Center envisions and explain why we think it should work. We invite our audiences comments and suggestions.
The goals of the course are manifold: The intent is to contextualize the study of Torah ethics, to sensitize students to the myriad Halachic issues that can arise in common commercial transactions (such as the rental of an apartment or the purchase of a home) or business settings (such as the relationship between an employer and employee), and to force students to evaluate their Halachic rights and responsibilities with reference to specific fact patterns and hypothetical cases. Two additional overriding purposes of the course are: 1) to make students aware of the secular law's pervasive regulation of commercial practices including, for instance, the reporting requirements for cash transactions, and 2) to ensure that students are cognizant of the consequences, often quite serious, of failing to comply with the law.
In order to approach ethical and legal issues, students would first study primary sources (Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, Rambam and responsa) about the interrelationships between Halacha, on the one hand, and secular law and commercial practices, on the other. They will be introduced to doctrines such as dina dmalchusa dina ("the law of the land is the law") and minhag hasocharim ("commercial practices"). Then they will be presented with hypothetical cases detailing a particular transaction or business deal. Examples of such hypothetical cases are found in the "Preliminary Torah Ethics Course Outline" appended at the end of this piece. With each hypothetical fact pattern, students would be provided not only with with primary Halachic materials, but also secular legal materials as well, including copies of federal and state statutes and case law.
This contextual -- if you will, "case study"-- approach and methodology is designed to breathe life into the classroom and to force students to integrate theory and reality. Reading ethical aphorisms in a vacuum may just not sink in. It is essential that students see how these principles apply in concrete cases.
Course Training for the Teachers
We understand that many Jewish high school Rebbeim and teachers are not trained to teach such a course, but we hope to address this problem in several ways.
First, The Center expects to develop a clear and comprehensive teacher's manual, which will set out all the materials and case studies. Second, The Center would provide live and video-taped training classes for those who undertake to teach the course. Third, The Center intends to provide ongoing support for Rebbeim and teachers by making available, via phone, e- mail and/or the Web, experts on the Halachic and legal issues raised in the hypotheticals cases. Fourth, The Center would encourage, and assist, schools to establish links between their Rebbeim and teachers and various local, qualified lawyers who have intimate knowledge of Halacha who would be able and willing to provide substantive guidance to the teachers. Finally, Rebbeim and teachers do not have to be prepared to provide precise and unambiguous answers to every question that is raised in the course. The reality is that poskim ("decisors") often differ on many issues. The objective is to cultivate the students' ability to perceive the existence of Halachic and ethical questions and to train them as to how to go about trying to resolve them.
We believe that a high school Torah ethics course structured in this way offers many educational returns and benefits, particularly from a Halachic perspective. One benefit is that in studying about the relationship between Halacha and secular law, students will be apprised of the importance of resolving disputes (that cannot otherwise be settled) in front of Rabbinic tribunals, before they become programmed to think only of resorting to secular processes and institutions. At the same time, students also will gain valuable and necessary knowledge about the structure of secular law and the relationship between the state and federal legal systems. Additionally, by focusing on hypotheticals, the course will enable Rebbeim and teachers to utilize a variety of engaging and interactive exercises, such as the conducting of mock Rabbinic or secular trials (in which students could play various roles), the preparation of written briefs, the rendition of oral argument, or the conducting of a moot court. Consequently, The Center's course could easily replace -- or serve as an alternative to -- the various moot court "courses" that many Jewish high schools offer, while providing the opportunity to sensitize students to Torah ethics. Of course, each school would have to determine how The Center's course would best fit into its curriculum, e.g., whether it should be designated as an "English" course potentially for college credit or a "Hebrew" course, or whether it should be offered daily, once a week or on some other basis. However, regardless whether the course is offered as an "English" or "Hebrew" class, it would have to be staffed by pre-trained, competent Rebbeim and teachers.
Concluding Thought Why start on a high school level?
High school students are sufficiently mature and experienced to appreciate the types of ethical issues that arise in business. But why begin teaching law and proper business conduct in high school rather than in some post-high school setting?
Within certain Orthodox communities, it is not uncommon for some students directly to enter the business world without any post-high school secular education. Thus, in some instances, high school is the only opportunity to sensitize these individuals to important legal issues in a formal educational setting. Even students who go on to "higher" secular education will benefit from a high school course. As these students get older, they are increasingly likely to take part-time jobs, summer jobs, or internships where they may observe the unethical realities of the secular marketplace. A high school course could teach them Torah ethics before they become cynical about or, worse yet, habituated to blindly imitating the misdeeds of those with whom they may work. In addition, even if students would not become jaded after high school and would take required "ethics" courses in some professional school, they would still need a course -- which the professional schools cannot or will not effectively offer -- in Torah ethics.
The proposed course is still in the planning stages. The authors and The Center would be grateful for any suggestions or other support to bring the vision of a Torah ethics course within the Yeshiva high school world to reality.
About the authors:
* Professor Resnicoff, a Professor at the DePaul University College of Law, in Chicago, is a yoreh yoreh yadin yadin musmach of Rav Moshe Feinstein, of blessed memory, and a graduate of Princeton College, Yale Law School, and Bais Medrash Govoha (the Lakewood Yeshiva). He has written and lectured on a variety of secular and Halachic subjects. Professor Resnicoff may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
** Mr. Kasdan is a graduate of Yeshiva College in New York City and of the Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. where he served as an editor of the Georgetown Law Journal. He has practiced law in Washington, D.C. for nearly twenty years. Mr. Kasdan also is the founder and editor of the "Jewish Law" web site located at http://www.jlaw.com, and may be reached via the feedback page.
The authors are independent contractor consultants for The Center for Halacha and American Law, a part of the Miami-based Aleph Institute that was established in mid-1998. The Aleph Institute is a tax-exempt, 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization that was originally founded in 1981 primarily to provide Jewish inmates and their families with educational, humanitarian and religious advocacy and social support. Since that time, the Aleph Institute has significantly expanded its scope of activities through a variety of endeavors and projects such as the creation of The Center.
For more information about The Aleph Institute and The Center for Halacha and American Law, please visit http://www.aleph-institute.org, send an e-mail to Isaac Jaroslowicz, Esq. Alephs Executive Director, at email@example.com or write to, or call, The Aleph Institute: 9540 Collins, Avenue, Surfside, FL 33154. Tel.: (305) 864-5553; fax: (305) 864-5675.