Donations of Ill-Gotten Gain: A Jewish Legal Perspective
Written By: Elliot Dorff
The Jewish tradition uses many resources to resolve moral dilemmas, to teach moral norms, and to motivate moral behavior. These include stories, proverbs, history, theology, modeling, study, and law. Although all of these aspects of Judaism can be and are used to determine what morality demands, to teach morality, and to motivate moral behavior, law is the principal way in which the Jewish tradition seeks to resolve moral conundrums. Like every other mechanism used for these moral purposes, law has some significant disadvantages as well as some clear advantages in accomplishing these ends.
Like Anglo-American law and unlike European Continental law, Jewish law works primarily through cases, in which judges respond to a specific set of circumstances and then their ruling can be used to inform later courts as to how to rule in similar cases. (Continental law instead works deductively from codes.) On hard cases, rabbis will describe the situation to another rabbi with known expertise in the relevant area of the law, and that rabbi will respond with a judicial ruling. This literature is called, in Hebrew, she’ailot u’teshuvot (“questions and answers”), or, in English, the responsa literature (singular, responsum).
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