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Plasticity of Jewish Law

The plasticity in application of Jewish law to our changing world was on display in Houston last month. Prizmah, a national organization for Jewish Day Schools, held a Shabbaton where teens representing over 25 schools across the United States came together to celebrate Jewish learning. The cornerstone of the weekend was the culmination of a year-long curriculum where teams displayed critical thinking skills in a Moot Beit Din (a “moot” judgement court) contest. In essence, they applied ancient wisdom of halakhah (Jewish law) to technology-based issues of today.  Teams crafted a written argument based on rabbinic sources, and rendered a decision concerning rights and blame regarding an accident involving a self-driving car. The Moot Beit Din represented a chance for them to orally present their case to a panel of judges.

Hands down it was the most exciting event I have attended in quite some time. The energy was electric! The competition was friendly and fierce, with academic bragging rights hanging in the balance. The students were completely focused, and the mental calisthenics surrounding the actual presentation were impressive. When it came time to present their rabbinic concepts, the students were succinct and sharp.

Each team was judged for both written and oral presentation of the case. The judges were comprised of leading academic, rabbinic, and legal minds representing Houston from all walks of Jewish life. Brith Shalom was well represented. Gavi Roisman, Rachel Silton-Robinson, and Judge Mike Engelhart contributed. Plus 12 other respected professionals that connect with our synagogue in one way or another. Overall, there were winners, but no losers – each team walked away with the pride of accomplishment, satisfied that they gave their very best.

But here is what impressed me most. In the end, it was the students who taught the elders. Teachers were forced to re-evaluate long-held beliefs as they examined applications of traditional laws applied to novel technologies. It was heartwarming to see the evolution of young minds as they recognized that Jewish law is not stagnant, but rather plastic in nature to allow us to adapt in an ever-changing world.

Jeff Actor

President, Congregation Brith Shalom