A Law School Seminar That Answers to a Higher Authority

December 23, 2016
George Fletcher and Saul Berman

George Fletcher and Saul Berman co-teach Biblical Jurisprudence. Photo by Barbara Alper

How many law courses discuss the creation of the heavens, the mark of Cain, and the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden?

These are among the highlights of a class that professors George Fletcher and Saul Berman teach together at Columbia Law School titled “Biblical Jurisprudence,” which involves teasing out the jurisprudential implications of ancient religious texts, a practice more than two thousand years old.

“The Bible communicates in words, and words require interpretation,” said Berman. “A subtle difference between the meaning of words often makes a significant difference in one’s understanding of a narrative, a value or a law.”

Fletcher, a former prosecutor, teaches criminal law, legal philosophy, and comparative law. He currently teaches a seminar in Victims’ Rights. Berman, a rabbi, scholar and educator, is expert in Jewish law related to modern social and political issues, including a specialty in Jewish medical ethics. “He has rabbinic depth,” said Fletcher.

The two men take turns leading the class, a seminar with 10 law students, that focuses on the five books of Moses in the Old Testament and the Prophets. They also include relevant parts of the New Testament, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan and examination of the role of law in the Christian gospels.

Berman said the seminar makes better lawyers, because students learn that law, both biblical and modern-day, reflects social values and not merely a mechanical application of rules.

“There are fundamental values embedded in biblical law that society continues to struggle with to this day, such as the teaching of the absolute value of human life,” said Berman. “In the biblical text that concept is foundational to the whole story of creation.”

Indeed, the professors spend a good deal of time studying the Bible’s account of origins.

“Genesis is the supreme document of Western civilization,” said Fletcher. “It is the founding text on good and evil, as well as determinism and free will.”

Berman added, “The teaching that there is a single couple out of which all of humanity derives is understood to mean that all human beings are created equal.”

The two don’t see eye-to-eye on history’s first recorded murder. Fletcher relishes the role of defending Cain, who killed Abel, against the verdict of history. When God condemns him to be a fugitive who must wander the earth, the Bible quotes Cain saying, “My punishment is too great to bear.” But Fletcher argues that in Hebrew that can also mean, “My wrong is too much to bear,” meaning that he recognizes the gravity of the crime.

Berman doesn’t read it as sympathetically. “I think Cain accepts the punishment but does not regret what he did. While we don’t really know exactly what his motive was in killing his brother, he never defends his action nor regrets it nor repents for it.”

The students over the past several years have been diverse, hailing from many countries and identifying with many faiths. This year there are seven Christians, one Muslim, and two Jewish students.

Just how did an Orthodox rabbi and a secular Jew come to co-teach a course that wrestles over the meaning of God’s law? The two met more than 20 years ago when Berman was the rabbi at Lincoln Square Synagogue and Fletcher had recently joined Columbia from UCLA. Fletcher came up to Berman after a talk on religion and values, and their conversation has since stretched across decades.

“We just hit it off,” said Berman, “his brilliance and love of the law were magnetic.”

Berman also teaches another course at the law school in Jewish law. The pair has collaborated in other law school seminars including one on Immanuel Kant and Jewish jurisprudence.

Both men believe America has a deep “religious sensibility,” Fletcher said, offering examples such as Lincoln’s reference to psalms in his second inaugural address and noting that the Ten Commandments are displayed in many courtrooms.

Overall, Fletcher and Berman find that legal study can bridge divides among people who base their faith on the Bible. Fletcher said, “Whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there is a monotheistic faith that unites all the Abrahamic cultures.”

—By Gary Shapiro