TouroI spent this morning at the fourth annual Religious Legal Theory Conference, hosted this year by Sam Levine at Touro Law School. I moderated a panel, “Religious Legal Theory and the Perspectives of ‘Others.'” The idea for the panel, which was Sam’s, was to bring together scholars who write about law in religious traditions other than their own, something that I tried to do a few years ago at the first Religious Legal Theory Conference with my essay, Fiqh and Canons.

The presentations were interesting and covered a variety of perspectives. Randy Lee (Widener) spoke about his experience as a Christian studying Jewish law. He said that this experience had taught him the importance of “listening Jewish”–to find the best in others. He wondered whether “Godly lawyers” who listened to clients in this way might actually transform lives. In response to a question from me, Randy stated that he did not think that all lawyers who study religious law would have his experience, or should; but, in studying Jewish law, he realized that he himself was a “variable,” not a “constant,” and that he himself had been transformed.

David Friedman (Santa Clara) is an atheist who studies the history of religious legal systems. He argued that Jewish and Islamic law both rest in part on pre-existing, decentralized  “feud systems,” characterized by private retaliation for wrongs. He gave examples from both systems. Friedman also addressed the problems that arise in legal systems that have God, rather than humans, as “the legislator,” and the various interpretive devices such systems employ to mitigate what seem to be disproportionate penalties called for in sacred scripture- Islamic law rules calling for amputation as punishment for theft, for example.

Philip Ackerman-Lieberman (Vanderbilt), who is Jewish, spoke about his work on the interactions between Islamic and Jewish commercial law in medieval Cairo. He argued that scholars should not concern themselves only with a comparison of legal details, but should study social and legal structures as a whole. Structural analysis reveals that the Islamic legal culture and Jewish legal subculture influenced each other in a kind of “dialogue.” The two systems shared ideas, but also differentiated themselves from one another–and in this differentiation may be found the distinctive elements of each legal tradition. Philip suggested that the study of legal theory and commercial practice in medieval Cairo could have an impact on contemporary issues faced by Islam and Judaism.

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