Dissenting: SCOTUS and the Talmud

The seal of the US Supreme Court and a Talmud page

On January 5th, I marked one year of Daf Yomi, the practice of studying one page of Talmud per day, every day. Now before you get overly impressed, keep in mind that I often read the page in English, or the summary from My Jewish Learning. Some days I get behind and have to catch up, but there are no daf yomi police that I know of.

Looking at some of the discussions, it’s easy to imagine that the rabbis mentioned in the Talmud had nothing better to do all day than discuss minute details regarding seemingly obscure concepts and practices. I don’t really care if a lizard in my oven will render it ritually impure; if there’s a lizard in my oven, I’m not using it! I might even have to sell my house.

What I do care about is the rabbis’ thought process; how did they make sense of the world around them within the context of Torah and other sacred writings? What did they do when they disagreed (always) and what happened when one position was adopted over another? Or when there was no conclusion?

The Talmud contains a record of these discussions, disagreements, precedents, teachings from earlier rabbis and sources, stories, historical information and much more. What might be most fascinating is that fact that when one rabbi’s ruling is adopted, the opinion of the one(s) who disagreed, along with the whole discussion leading up to the conclusion, is recorded as well.

Each voice is considered vital to the conversation.

If we were privy to the deliberations of the US Supreme Court, we might wonder if they’re studying Talmud; arguing over details and generalities, questioning whether or not a precedent really applies to the case at hand, and perhaps even going off on a tangent or two.

When the US Supreme Court hands down decisions, it also records the dissenting opinion, and I’m convinced this is based on the structure of the Talmud. I’d like to believe that just like the Talmud, SCOTUS Justices carefully consider facts, precedents, extenuating circumstances and other similar situations when coming to a decision.

In both cases, we might wonder– why do we waste ink on what was rejected? Isn’t the decision all we need? Not in the Talmud, and not in the Court. One reason is to make sure that the reasons for the dissenting opinion are recorded, because they may affect judgments in future, similar cases. Another is that the dissenting opinion can help the person writing the majority opinion to further clarify their position, as was the case with the late justices Ginsburg and Scalia. Finally, it again reminds us that while we may not agree, and “our side” may not ultimately prevail, everyone has a right to an opinion, and a right to be heard.

There’s a lot of turmoil and division in our country at the moment, and everyone wants to be right, for their opinions to be the only ones considered. As S. G. Tallentyre wrote in her biography of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And I will do my best to listen and to hear.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Latest Sermons

Yom Kippur: Hope, Despair And A Shining Sun
Yom Kippur: Hope, Despair And A Shining Sun

Yom Kippur 5783 Like many of the quotes and poems that make their way into use, a poem attributed to an anonymous person in a concentration camp, or in hiding, became somewhat of an urban legend, and has often been taken out of context, as well as not accurately...


Kol Nidre, 5783 On Rosh Hashanah, we began our prayers in the hopes of moving God, the Holy Blessed One, from kisei din, the throne or seat of judgment, to kisei rachamim, the throne or seat of compassion. Ten days later, here we are at the eve of Yom Kippur,...

Shema: Listening, Hearing and the Shofar

Rosh Hashanah 5783, Day 2 The word, “Shema.” What do you think of when you hear it? Usually, we think of “The Shema” as the verses we chant or sing from the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, and in that context, it’s a bold theological statement. It is an idea which goes...

Latest Midrash HaZak

Kedoshim: Coming of Age in Holiness
Kedoshim: Coming of Age in Holiness

Photo and art by Rabbi Susan Elkodsi Kedoshim: Coming of Age in Holiness Rabbi Dr. Jill Hackell As I move through my 70s I find myself increasingly aware of my “senior” status in our society. Suddenly, by virtue of my age I am in a category that labels me vulnerable–I...

Parasha Vayakhel: A Mirror of the Holy Whole
Parasha Vayakhel: A Mirror of the Holy Whole

                                  Parasha Vayakhel: A Mirror of the Holy Whole Cherie Karo Schwartz  My Mom, Dotty Karo of blessed memory, was an ultimate crafter. She had a room stuffed with kaleidoscope-colored treasures she’d collected or had been gifted by...

Ki Tavo: Entering the Land and a New Age

Ki Tavo: Entering the Land and a New Age Charles Goldman This midrash speaks to me. Just as the people of Israel were about to embark on the next mega steps of their lives in the Holy Land, and Moses was intoning to them that they have “a heart to know, eyes to see,...

Latest Personal Blogs

Blessing My Bended Knees-A Poem
Blessing My Bended Knees-A Poem

This past week, I participated in a Ritualwell class with Alden Solovy on "Writing From One Word of Torah." I distilled 3 stream-of-consciousness prompts on the word "Baruch/Berekh," the root of which can mean "blessing' and "knee, into this poem. Blessing my bended...

The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives
The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives

Photo: publicdomainpictures.net The Eshet Hayil In Our Lives An email from My Jewish Learning about “A Woman of Valor” prompted me to pivot the next evening’s planned adult learning session to looking at these 22 verses from Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs. These verses...

Live Long and Prosper?
Live Long and Prosper?

By Oklahoma Heritage Association, Gaylord-Pickens Museum - Author, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25656727 Live Long and Prosper? January 5, 2022 began the third year of the seven and a half-year cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of...

Pin It on Pinterest