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Thought for the Day: Following the Laws of the Country -- Bankruptcy and Seat Belts

I was once heard to remark (I know this is true because I was there), "There is no inertia in gemara."  The remark was in response to once again having read one or two words further and -- again, once again -- finding myself in a brand new discussion.  No warnings, no dots... nothing; just a completely new discussion.  In fact, though, the frustration for us (relative) new comers to gemara, is that we think that the incidents and cases being presented are the rai·son d'ê·tre of this or that particular daf of gemara.  It's not.  The rai·son d'ê·tre for this or that daf of gemara is to discuss some deep Torah principle that is exemplified by the incidents and cases being presented.  Of course, Chazal are not going to actually tell you what deep Torah principle is being discussed (that's no fun); it is up to the interested reader to ferret that out by finding the common thread.

Many Torah lectures follow a similar pattern.  (After all, they great Torah speakers were educated bu the gemara itself.)  Usually, though, the speaker will tell you the common thread and then present the cases.  That is how I came to learn some interesting details in דינא דמלכותא דינא -- Literally: the laws of a country are (also) halacha/Jewish law.  Of course obeying your host country's laws is usually a good idea, but sometimes they are also transformed into laws incumbent on you by dint of decree by the Creator of the World -- disobeying that is reckless, self-destructive, and just plain stupid.

To be transform a law from just a good idea (i.e., law decreed by government) to a Law (i.e., HaShem Said so), the law needs to fulfill three criteria:
  1. provides a tangible benefit to the society
  2. is enforced by said government
  3. does not contradict the (Torah) Law
The decrees in the 30s that Jews should wear a yellow star, for example, does not fit the criteria.  Either you consider it simply an annoyance, so (1) knocks it out; or the government was was using it to enable them to more easily target Jews, so (3) knocks it out.  The law against jaywalking in downtown Chicago is most definitely knocked out by (2).  Seat belt (and infant seat) laws, however, are quite often enforced.  Those laws also provide a tangible benefit to the society, as they decrease the severity human carnage due to traffic accidents, thereby decreasing costs to the society in cleaning up messes.  Moreover, it supports the Torah Law of keeping yourself healthy.

Inheritance and bankruptcy present interesting challenges.  R' Moshe feels that bankruptcy laws do, in fact, provide a tangible benefit to society, given the American economic system.  The Torah does not, however, recognize bankruptcy -- if you owe money, you owe money.  There are two ways the poskim deal with that.  First, some invoke the principle of הפקר בית דין הפקר -- basically, the halachic version of eminent domain.  The Jewish court to can (automatically) declare all debts of one who declares bankruptcy to be null and void.  Another approach is that one is allowed to make any stipulation he wants on monetary transactions.  Some poskim feel that in America it is an implicit condition of all transactions that the become null and void if a party declares bankruptcy.

Then there's inheritance, which presents its own issues.


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