Although secular and Torah law sometimes share similar rulings, many times they are at odds. And when it comes to the overtly metaphysical aspects of Torah, non-Jews are understandably clueless. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, once said that the simple understanding of a person not immersed in Torah is often the very opposite of the halachah. For example, if one’s animal caused damage to someone else’s property, a person unfamiliar with Torah jurisprudence would say that the owner is not responsible. After all, why should the owner pay for damage caused by his animal unless it was through his own gross negligence?
In one predominantly non-Jewish community, the local magistrates did not fine the Jewish owner of an animal that had caused damage to his non-Jewish neighbor’s property a cent. They did decide, however, that the neighbor who had suffered the damage could seize the animal in lieu of payment. And this is precisely what the offended neighbor did. Unfortunately, the animal was a bechor.
When the Jew approached his neighbor and broached the issue, the non-Jew refused to sell the animal back to him for the market value. “I have witnesses that the damage caused to my property by your animal was more than he is worth. Now, although the law does not obligate you to pay me for the damage it is perfectly within my rights to seize the creature. If you want it back we can talk about it, but I warn you that it is going to cost you…”
The forlorn owner—who was a kohen— wondered what he should do. Was he obligated to pay more than the value of the animal to the non-Jew? After all, it was not his fault the non-Jew had seized his animal.
When this question reached the Maharam of Rottenberg, zt”l, he ruled that the owner was not obligated to pay more than the animal’s value. “This seems clear from the Talmudic principle regarding redeeming tefillin and the like from a non-Jew. Such religious objects should not be redeemed for more than their value, as we find in Gittin 45. Just as paying more than their value will encourage non-Jews to steal tefillin and the like, paying more for a bechor is also likely to be used to our disadvantage by non-Jews.”
Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Reclaiming the Bechor”
I know the above quoted story is probably difficult for most of us to understand. For the vast majority of Christians and Jews, we wouldn’t necessarily see much, if any dissonance between our religious responsibilities and obeying the secular civil and criminal law of our local communities. There are however, some religious groups that do attend to a specific set of religious codes and sometimes collide head on with the secular law enforcement and court systems. I periodically see examples of this in news items involving the Chabad community in Brooklyn and very occasionally I’ve seen indications of a dissonance between how Mormons see their responsibility to secular law as different than the larger population (it can be very subtle).
This isn’t a new problem.
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him. -Mark 12:13-17
While the “render unto Caesar” example doesn’t include every possible religious/legal conflict, it does act as a general guide that our faith doesn’t absolve us of behaving like good citizens in the places where we live and obeying the laws of the local, regional, and national authorities. That begs the question, whose law is greater, man’s or God’s? Obviously God’s, but I don’t see a particularly strong directive in the Bible that allows people of faith to blow off police officers and legal court orders because God trumps their authority. We know that even secular authority is established by God and Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 to actually pray for our leaders that “we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness.”
All of this is an extension of what I’ve been talking about in one way or another for the past week or so; the relationship between two unlike groups such as Christians and Jews. In terms of culture, getting along isn’t too much of a chore but when we add in our various religious requirements, we can sometimes encounter problems with each other as well as with the society around us. It’s not that we want the problems, but we know that our competing interests can get in the way of each other. Add to that centuries of conflict and mistrust that result in the prejudiced thoughts or ideas we have about who Christians are or who Jews are and how they’ve treated us in the past. It’s amazing to think sometimes that we even worship the same God.
But who, or what, is really responsible for the rift that separates the creatures of God?
When we can’t get along with someone, we like to blame it on that person’s faults: stupidity, incompetence, outrageous actions, aggression or some other evil.
The real reason is none of these. It is that the world is broken, and we are the shattered fragments.
And all that stops us from coming back together is that we each imagine ourselves to be whole.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
We can sometimes blame the other guy or even blame supernatural forces for how fractured our relationships seem, but in fact, our relationships are broken because the world is broken. It’s as if a man who was intended to be an Olympic-class runner has his knees broken and is forced to limp along for the vast majority of his life when he should be racing around the track. That’s the world we live in. If it bothers you that Christians and Jews can’t get along (or that Christians can’t get along with other Christians and Jews can’t get along with other Jews), it should bother you. We weren’t made for these sorts of struggles. That’s why, instead of focusing on what keeps us apart, we need to contribute just a little bit each day, to putting the world and ourselves back together again. We aren’t whole, but we can strive to be.
What one thing can you do today to make your broken world just one little tiny bit better?