The Law of the Land

October 21, 2021 in Rabbi Deborah Megdal, Reflections Off the Bimah

Talmud Page, Nedarim 27b

Talmud Page, Nedarim (“Vows”) 27b

This week, I gathered with our affinity group for attorneys. Thirty-five of us began our morning with Talmud study. What better way to begin a day?

We learned a section from Tractate Nedarim that permits taking false vows (under certain circumstances) to murderers, robbers, or tax collectors. One rabbi objects, based on the halakhic concept of dina de’malkhuta dina, meaning “‘the law of the land [lit. ‘kingdom’] — is the law”. In other words, Jewish law obligates us to follow the law of the land in which we live. 

We are allowed to lie to a murderer or robber in order to save our lives or our livelihoods, but we may not defraud a tax collector who is authorized by the state and carrying out their duties appropriately. 

Dina de’malkhuta dina. The law of the land is the law. Why would the rabbis have insisted on this obligation?

Perhaps given the vulnerability of life in the diaspora, Jews feared punishment by secular authorities. Justice Menachem Elon, former Deputy President of the Supreme Court of Israel, supports this view: He writes, “the doctrine [dina de’malkhuta dina] was established … as a result of the historical situation of a Jewish community that enjoyed Jewish juridical autonomy but nevertheless lived by the sufferance of a non-Jewish government that had its own legal system.”

We also considered that the rabbis respected the wisdom of local laws and customs. Ours is a legal tradition, firmly grounded in the belief that there are rules and that those rules should be followed. 

How has our legal tradition evolved? What do we gain and what do we lose when we locate legal authority in our Jewish tradition versus our US legal tradition? What was at stake for Jews in earlier historical periods? What is at stake for us today?

What began as a technical analysis of case law transformed into a conversation about tikkun olam, social justice. As Justice Elon also teaches, “Jewish law will not recognize the applicability of non-Jewish law if such application would violate the basic principles of justice and equity embodied in Jewish law.” It took mere moments for our Beth El group to think of examples when our Jewish values led us to challenge certain secular laws — perhaps most recently and resonantly, the Texas anti-abortion law, SB 8. 

I am enormously proud to be part of our devoted, engaged community in which our learning is both joyful and serious, both academic and applied. We can relish our legal tradition and harness its deep and ancient wisdom to better our world today. 

The National Council of Jewish Women is launching a campaign next week, 73 Forward: Pathways to Expanding Abortion Access. They assert, “For too long the faith-based narrative in this country has been one against abortion, yet Jewish tradition encourages and sometimes requires it. Through our 73 Forward campaign, NCJW is rewriting that narrative and leading a new Jewish communal movement to remove educational, financial, and legislative roadblocks for people experiencing pregnancy.” 

The evening of the NCJW launch event, I will be donning my academic hat to teach at our Scolnic Institute. I encourage us to learn more about the work of all those who advocate for justice based on Jewish values.