Imagine you’re a young adult. You know you were adopted; you know that you were born in Colombia. You were raised in the modern Orthodox Jewish community. You attended yeshiva high schools.
But now, as an adult, you discover that your parents had neglected to complete the paperwork necessary to register you as a U.S. citizen. Uh oh. You’re an illegal alien.
As an Orthodox Jew, you are faced with the question: What are your rights and responsibilities under halacha, Jewish law, in this situation?
It’s a well-known principle of halacha that dina d’malchuta dina — that secular law is considered Jewish law. Does that mean you are halachically required to self-deport to Colombia, where you have no connections and can’t speak the language? Given the danger to your life if you were to be deported, can you procure fraudulent identification?
That was the question posed to this summer’s students at the Center for Modern Torah Leadership’s summer beit midrash. Generally, the six-week educational program is held in Sharon, Massachusetts; this year it took place in Zoom. This was the 24th year for the program, which is is led and taught by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, the one-man show behind the center.
Several of the 13 full-time students in this summer’s class were from North Jersey; at least two of them only were able to be there because they could stay home.
For Sara Schatz of Teaneck, the summer beit midrash was an opportunity to study Torah in the gap between between graduating from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in the spring and starting YU’s Graduate Program In Advanced Talmudic Studies for Women in the fall.
“It was really a great experience,” she said. “The way Rabbi Klapper teaches is something I’ve never seen before. The way of thinking was very different than Stern. It involves a lot more academic material. He looks critically at teshuvot” — rabbinic responsa — “and compares them to secular philosophy.”
Rabbi Akiva Weisinger, who grew up in Teaneck and lives in Fair Lawn, teaches Bible at Ramaz Middle School in Manhattan. “I have seen Rabbi Klapper’s work on a bunch of halachic topics,” he said. “He is always clear and deeply moral and thoughtful.”
The study schedule was a traditional yeshiva’s — three hours of studying texts with a study partner, followed by Rabbi Klapper’s class, a seminar that would analyze the texts. The texts ranged from the Talmud to contemporary decisions made by Israeli rabbinic courts.
Rabbi Binyamin Weinreich of Bergenfield, who teaches English and social studies at the Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch middle school in Washington Heights, had heard about the program for years. First a friend had gone up to Boston for the summer while he was at YU; then one brother went, and then another. Even his wife’s sister went. The virtual session was his chance finally to take part. “The learning was high level,” Rabbi Weinreich said. “It was interesting to look at halacha from way that was both conceptual and very practical.”
Studying the decisions of halachic decisors, and then having to draft his own halachic ruling, “gave me a healthier respect to those who do make halachic decisions. If there was this much depth and thought for a hypothetical decision, imagine how much Rabbi Hershel Schachter” — the halachic authority for the Orthodox Union and the head of YU’s rabbinical seminary — “was doing for his many teshuvot on covid the last five months.”
Rabbi Klapper’s summer beit midrash is the spiritual descendant of YU’s Boston summer kollel, which was basically a fancy name for the students who flocked to Boston in the summer to study with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. During the school year Rabbi Soloveitchik commuted to Yeshiva’s Washington Heights campus from Brookline each week; during the summer, his students went to him. After Rabbi Soloveitchik stopped teaching, the YU program petered out. In 1997, four years after Rabbi Soloveitchik’s death, Rabbi Klapper started his program. (Full disclosure: Rabbi Klapper and I were colleagues on a YU student newspaper in 1985.)
It took a few years for the format to evolve, but it has been focusing on breaking new halachic ground for years now, though each year the topic of study changes. (In 2019, the topic was the ramifications of CRISPR gene modification technology.)
“I realized there’s a gap in the yeshiva curriculum,” Rabbi Klapper said. “The idea of persuasive halachic writing was completely absent in the modern Orthodox community. I thought it would be a contribution if we could recreate the art of persuasive halachic writing.”
The YU program was only for men; Rabbi Klapper’s program “went officially co-ed around year four or five. It just got absurd because these incredible women applied. Originally my idea was to set up separate and equal programs, but it was very clear I didn’t have the money or time to run two programs.”
The program is held, in non-pandemic summers, in conjunction with the Young Israel of Sharon. Classes take place at the shul; students stay with congregants, and study with them in the evenings. “We formally require people to be observant of Orthodox halacha during their time in the summer,” Rabbi Klapper said. “But we created an associate status for people who want to come learn and not be bound by the halachic rules.” Among the non-Orthodox alumni is a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the movement’s halachic decision-making body.
In recruiting, Rabbi Klapper looks for people “who take halacha very seriously, who like having challenging conversations with peers in a constructive and respective fashion.” The target age is “a college junior as a median, but with a very high standard deviation. We’ve had precocious high school students; the oldest student was 65.
“The goal is to make sure that everybody knows the primary texts well enough to evaluate secondary readings of them, and that they know everything that would be expected to be quoted in a standard halachic discourse about that topic. We want people to have their self-perception changed from consumers to producers of halacha. Writing a teshuva gets people to understand that halachic rulings are not made in a vacuum.”
This summer’s study focused on contemporary rabbinic rulings on the question of dina d’malchuta dina. “What do you do as a halachic Jew in a non-halachic democracy?” The rulings were by Israeli rabbis, “because unfortunately in the United States no one asks the question,” Rabbi Klapper said.
Medieval Talmudic interpreters offered different explanations for the principle that the law of the land is the law. But explanations that made sense in Roman-occupied Israel and medieval Europe don’t necessarily make sense in a democracy. “To what extant do you generalize from the experience of Jews in medieval Europe, who saw themselves as non citizens?”
As Rabbi Klapper and his students studied efforts by contemporary rabbis to answer the questions of the role of law in a democracy, Rabbi Klapper asked a very non-traditional question of the texts they studied: What is the philosophy of government behind the ruling? “We tried to locate them in the machlokes” — argument — “between Hobbes and Rousseau,” he said.
Guest lecturers were brought in to discuss political theory, civil disobedience, and even the historical experience of Orthodox Jews in Weimar and Nazi Germany. “In halacha, we really don’t have a good account of an environment where Jews are full citizens in a democracy,” Rabbi Klapper said. “We don’t have any halachic wrestling with Thoreau, where part of your responsibility as a citizen is to disobey. To discuss any topic like that, you have to deal with the question of ‘What is law?’”
So what’s the answer to the hypothetical question?
“I ended up arguing that any law that is discriminatory in intent and in practice isn’t valid, and is able to be ignored under Jewish law,” Rabbi Weisinger said. “It’s in the sources. The logic works out. Then you start paging through American law and have to deal with the consequences if you invalidate laws that at their origin are discriminatory. That has wide implications.
“Others said that we don’t recognize the authority of a non-Jewish government to enforce immigration laws because halacha only enforces monetary laws.”
Rabbi Weinreich argued that “immigration laws are binding, one way or another. The question is does this case justify what you might call civil disobedience; saying that it’s binding but you should violate it for certain reasons. I went through several factors that could justify that and showed why they won’t apply in this case.”
He said he didn’t believe the accidental immigrant could get fake ID halachically.
“It’s defrauding the country,” he said. At the same time, “You don’t need to self-deport. And there’s no mitzvah on anyone to report you to ICE. Nobody needs to help ICE in any way. Dina d’malchuta dina can create negative restrictions, but not positive obligations. It doesn’t necessary create an obligation to remove oneself.”