I've taken a few classes put on by the Jewish Learning Institute (they teach concurrently in many locations worldwide) and am currently taking this one. The title is "The Dilemma", and they describe it as: modern dilemmas, talmudic debates, your solutions. Each class looks at a group of real incidents around some theme, after which we discuss what principles ought to apply before delving into relevant texts (talmud and later commentaries). It's a pretty neat class, though I keep identifying aspects of the problems that aren't the core point of the lesson and thus get set aside.

In the first class, the theme was cases where someone in the process of committing a crime does unexpected good -- should he be treated more leniently because of that? The cases were:

1. A terrorist attacks someone, stabbing him in the gut but not killing him. The victim is rushed to the ER, where doctors find a cancerous tumor that would have killed him within the year.

2. On a hot day, thieves smash a car window to steal the laptop sitting on the front seat, allowing a dog inside to escape the heat that would have killed him.

3. Civil law prohibits possession of alcohol, but someone nonetheless keeps a private stash. A disapproving neighbor smashes his kegs. Later that day, the civil authorities conduct a surprise inspection but find nothing with which to charge the person.

I noted that the three cases had different types of unintended benefits -- saving a human life, saving an animal's life, and saving money (the fine that wasn't paid). (On the transgression side, one is against a human life and the other two are against property. We were mostly focused on the benefit side, not this side.) I also noted that there were three types of culpability on the part of the victim -- the guy with the alcohol was knowingly violating local laws, the guy with the laptop recklessly endangered the dog, and the terror victim was an innocent bystander. I thought that both of these axes of variation would be relevant to the discussion, but that's not where the class went.

We then talked about some other cases, most significantly a passage from the talmud about a man who goes fishing on Shabbat and inadvertently catches in his net a child that had fallen into the water, thus saving the child from drowning. Fishing is not allowed on Shabbat, but saving a life takes priority over Shabbat laws. Does saving the child bring him any leniency for violating Shabbat? If he knew about the child there would be no question; pikuach nefesh trumps Shabbat. But in the case of an accident? The talmud rules that it's pikuach nefesh, saving a life, even if you didn't intend it, and so the fisherman is not guilty of violating Shabbat.

(Rabbi: "What do we learn from this?" Me: "If you're going to fish on Shabbat, have a child on hand to throw in." Rabbi: "..." What? It reminded me of always mount a scratch monkey. But I digress.)

From there we talked about applications, and learned that if the act itself causes the positive outcome then there is leniency -- for example, breaking the window to steal the laptop and freeing the dog -- but if the benefit comes only later, it doesn't. So the knife-wielding attacker doesn't get any leniency for the cancer discovery, and the person who destroyed his neighbor's alcohol stash owes him damages.

There was more, and also some material in the book that we didn't get to and that I haven't read yet. I don't claim to have learned all the answers, but it was an engaging class.

The second class was about taking the law into your own hands -- for example, you know that that guy right there is the one who just stole your iPhone and he's about to hop into a cab, so can you physically intervene? More on that later, I hope. (I had to miss the end of this class so I'm waiting for the recording, plus there are materials I need to read yet.)

This class gives CLE credits, which kind of mystifies me, so a lot of the students are lawyers. Apparently I fit in with them, dress aside. I'm not sure how talmudic studies help one be better at practicing Pennsylvania law, but if I were a lawyer I'd be tickled to be able to satisfy a professional requirement through torah study.

I was discussing this class in Mi Yodeya's chat room and somebody mentioned the book Veha'arev Na, which collects things like this -- real, modern question with Jewish-law interpretation. That sounds like something I would quite enjoy.

Followup post

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