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Conference to Explore Jewish and Contemporary Law : Study: The gathering, which begins today, will review Talmudic tradition and modern legal systems. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is keynote speaker.

March 31, 1995|MARK I. PINSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Married just a year, a wealthy woman claims her estranged husband wed only for money, and so is not entitled to any of her family's fortune in their divorce.

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The judge agrees that there was implied fraud, denies the husband's claim and in his ruling recommends written, prenuptial agreements.

A typical domestic dispute, except that the judge was a 16th Century Polish rabbi, relying on a compendium of law and legal commentary called the Talmud that already stretched back more than 2,500 years.

The relevance of the Talmudic tradition to modern American law is the subject of "Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue," the first national conference on Jewish and contemporary law, which begins this afternoon in Newport Beach and features a keynote address by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Society today is deciding its most important issues in the framework of the law," said Rabbi David Eliezrie of Yorba Linda, the conference's director. "The purpose of this conference is to bring together two legal systems: one based on 200 years of case-by-case legal study, the other rooted in three millennia of Jewish tradition."

The unprecedented gathering of law professors, attorneys, rabbis and judges exploring common ground between their two traditions runs through Sunday at the Hyatt Newporter resort.

"Hopefully," Eliezrie said, "this dialogue between these two legal systems, one ancient and one modern, will produce a better society for all of us."

In addition to Scalia, other scheduled panelists include U.S. Circuit Court Judge Stephen Reinhardt, U.S. Immigration Judge Bruce Einhorn and Associate Justice Norman Epstein of the California Court of Appeal.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of Jerusalem, who also will deliver a keynote address, said the Talmudic system is "tempered by mercy. I think that there is always a debate over the movement between justice and mercy. . . . Finding the right medium is the main purpose of any juridical system."

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Acknowledging that he was venturing into sensitive territory, Steinsaltz said that the Talmudic tradition "would like to have fewer lawyers." Unlike the tradition of the West, civil and religious disputes in the Jewish community usually were argued by the people involved directly to a rabbi or panel of rabbis.

Without "intermediaries and hired mercenary fighters," Steinsaltz said, the process is more direct and "gets more to the truth, with less danger of obscuring the real facts. There is a chance of finding out the facts of what people really want from each other in a civil suit."

Topics to be explored at the conference demonstrate that there is nothing unique in problems between people, conference sponsors say. Among them are adoption, victim's rights, sexual harassment, medical malpractice and gun control.

"The goal of the Jewish system of law is to make us holy, to create a fellowship and communion with God," said Irving Breitowitz, professor of law at the University of Maryland. "As a result, the stress in the Jewish tradition is not on rights, but on obligations and responsibilities."

The conference grew out of a monthly class on the Talmudic tradition, led by Eliezrie, that meets in the Costa Mesa offices of Rutan and Tucker, one of Orange County's largest law firms. The lunchtime discussions have drawn as many as 40 lawyers, not all of them Jewish, and at least one judge, Associate Justice Sheila Prell Sonenshine, of the California Court of Appeal.

One contemporary discussion of legal ethics and logic that reached back two millennia dealt with the rights and responsibilities of people living in gated communities, focusing on ancient methods of assessing the costs of collective security. Other sessions with contemporary applications touched on property rights, accidental death and injury, perjury and when life in the womb begins.

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