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Lawyers Turn to Talmud for Continuing Education

When it comes to making a case before a jury, every bit of supporting information counts — even if it’s 2,000 years old.

New York-based attorney Robert Persky has been taking courses for seven years at The Institute of American and Talmudic Law, which offers classes comparing a wide range of issues in American jurisprudence with talmudic law on those same subjects. “Talmud gives you another way of presenting a case, or a better understanding of the nature of the problem and how to address it,” said Persky, who uses the classes to get his required continuing legal education credits.

Persky is not alone; hundreds of attorneys have turned to the IATL’s continuing education classes. And this spring, the IATL will expand from its home base in New York to several more states.

Chabad of Midtown Manhattan founded the IATL in 2001. A young rabbi named Noach Heber had recently joined the staff and said he was looking for “innovative ways to reach Jewish professionals in the midtown community.” After weighing ideas for outreach to doctors and finance professionals, Heber hit on a collaboration with the New York Legal Assistance Group, a not-for-profit organization that provides free legal services to poor New Yorkers in various at-risk communities, including Holocaust survivors.

Nylag’s president, attorney Yisroel Schulman, was a longtime supporter of Chabad of Midtown, and Nylag was already an accredited provider of continuing legal education, or CLE, classes. Depending on their years of experience, attorneys practicing in New York State must take between 24 and 32 credit hours of these professional development classes every two years. Classes cover such topics as ethics, professionalism and law-practice management. “Generally, CLE, to be honest, is sort of a pain for [attorneys],” Heber said. “They have to do it, so they do it. Why not give them something interesting that they feel they want to come to? Something Jewish, something with a twist?”

Heber teamed up with Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe, an expert on talmudic Halacha and issues of secular law and ethics, and offered a daylong, three-class seminar worth nine CLE credits. Seventy-five lawyers showed up. And the project took off. By 2005, Chabad of Midtown was offering classes monthly, both in person and online, that were drawing some 250 attorneys each year. The online classes, which participants can download from anywhere with an Internet connection, allowed the organization to expand its scope.

In 2006, the program became a separate organization independent from Chabad of Midtown, and adopted its current name. In 2007, IATL became an accredited CLE provider in California, Colorado, Georgia and Pennsylvania, so attorneys in those states could enroll in the online courses and get CLE credits from their state bar associations. Forty-two states require lawyers to complete a certain number of CLE credit hours to remain in good standing with their state bar associations.

The typical IATL class is two-and-a-half hours long and focuses on a specific legal subject such as wills and inheritance, commercial real estate leasing or product liability. Classes are team-taught by an attorney — typically a leading expert in the given subject — and a rabbi. The attorney and the rabbi each make a presentation, after which the two bounce off each other’s ideas and presentations and engage in a conversation with attendees about the relative merits of the two systems of law.

“Judaic law, in particular as articulated in the Talmud, is very much built around the idea that there is an ideal mode of existence for individuals and societies,” Yaffe told the Forward. “It’s built around an idea of justice in the purest sense. The Talmud is very aware of the idea that if the letter of the law is dragged away from the sprit of the law, it needs to be dragged back.”

One online class — “Criminal Trials: Is It Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?” — is co-taught by Yaffe and Barry Slotnick, a high-profile white-collar lawyer who represented, among others, the 1980s “subway vigilante,” Bernard Goetz. Other courses instructed by Yaffe include “Defeating Terrorism With the Law,” co-taught by former deputy assistant attorney general Nathan Lewin, and “Law and Justice in Arbitration,” co-taught by retired United States magistrate judge Kathleen A. Roberts.

Classes cost $150 online and $195 in person; attorneys also have the option of becoming a member of the IATL, which allows them to attend any or all of the seminars in a given year. Heber says the program is not yet breaking even, but he hopes that its financial situation will change with the program’s expansion this year.

Heber says that the IATL aims to offer live, in-person seminars in other states for the first time by late March or early April. Teaming up with local Chabad centers, the IATL will fly out Yaffe so that he can collaborate with local attorney-presenters to offer daylong seminars. Plans are still in progress, but Heber believes that California and Pennsylvania will be the first IATL satellite sites.

It may seem unlikely that the study of Talmud would be helpful or applicable to the practice of law in America, where the separation of church and state is a fundamental founding principle. But several of the IATL’s instructors and students insist that, in fact, learning with a rabbi has made them better lawyers. “Talmudic reasoning and logic is on a very high level,” Schulman said. “It’s dealing in multidimensional reasoning and arguments. People who learn Talmud are phenomenal attorneys, because they’re able to see things from multiple perspectives.”

What’s more, Schulman said, “there are amazing correlations in the areas of torts and property law that you can literally trace from U.S. law to British Common Law to Canon Law. And where did church canon law come from? Straight from the Talmud.”

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