A Judge With No Courtroom: Law, Ethics and the Rabbinic Idea of Lifnim Mi-Shurat Ha-Din

Barer, Deborah, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Alexander, Elizabeth, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Ochs, Peter, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Mohrmann, Margaret, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Fowler, Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Schauer, Frederick, School of Law, University of Virginia

This study offers a new paradigm for understanding the enigmatic Hebrew phrase 'lifnim mi-shurat ha-din', which lies at the center of ongoing debates over the relationship between Jewish ethics and Jewish law. Contemporary scholars largely understand lifnim mi-shurat ha-din as indicating one of two types of morally praiseworthy action: cases in which a person ethically exceeds his or her legal duty, or cases in which a person forgoes a special right or privilege under the law. Over and against these two models, the present study argues that the Talmudic use of this phrase does not indicate a specific type of action, but instead refers to a specific type of rabbinic decision-making.

The dissertation claims that the Talmudic editors primarily adopt the phrase lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, which first appears in tannaitic literature, as a way of addressing a set of narratives about rabbis whose behavior does not conform to established rabbinic norms and standards. By classifying such behaviors as lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, the editors preclude them from establishing legal precedent and neutralize potential conflicts among their sources. The application of this label does not simply resolve hermeneutic or legal challenges, however, but also establishes a new model of rabbinic decision-making. Through an analysis of the classical rabbinic sources that create this category, this study examines how the Talmud constructs an understanding of lifnim mi-shurat ha-din as discretionary judgment, both in relation and in opposition to the more prominent model of rule-based judgment.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Babylonian Talmud, Rabbinic Literature, Jewish Ethics, Legal Reasoning
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