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Highlights from “The Caroline Zelaznik & Joseph S. Gruss Lecture in Talmudic Civil Law with Professor Chaim Saiman”

October 17, 2013

By Nicole Greenstein C’14

A mix of students, lawyers and community members convened October 15 in the Bernard Segal Moot Court Room for Penn Law’s annual Gruss Lecture on Talmudic civil law. This year’s lecture was delivered by Professor Chaim Saiman, the Gruss Professor of Talmudic Law at Penn Law and Professor of Law at Villanova Law School.

One of the central themes in Saiman’s presentation was the struggle between applied and non-applied law. To illustrate his point, he offered an example of the relationship between a debtor and a creditor. If someone lacks the funds to repay his creditor, under Talmudic law a creditor cannot pressure him or make him feel anxious. For instance, if the creditor takes the fork out of that person’s hand as he’s eating dinner, Saiman noted, that action would be “a grave violation of biblical prohibitions.”

Yet on the other hand, Saiman acknowledged that this law applies in a relatively narrow sense, since there are also issues regarding the creditor’s right to acquire title. To resolve this discrepancy, he explained that while some laws do apply in practice, others apply through the study of Torah. By mandating their study, such laws then become a shared cultural reference point for communities.

“From my view of applied, I don’t need there to be a formal enforcement mechanism,” Saiman said. “I would say that a religious enforcement mechanism, or a communal or social enforcement mechanism, is enough.”

Alex Rosenthal L’13, one of Saiman’s Penn Law students, appreciated the unique perspective that Saiman brought to this year’s Gruss Lecture.

“I like how he differentiates between things that are more applicable and things that are aspirational,” said Rosenthal. “I think he’s a real scholar, a really wonderful presenter and a great professor.