Jewish lawyers are a stereotype who have been the punchline of jokes for years. It is true that many Jews choose to go into law, but it is also common that some Orthodox Jewish men who choose law school also choose to pursue semicha. According to Rabbi Menachem Penner, Max and Marion Grill Dean of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and Undergraduate Torah Studies at YU, out of the 135 musmachim in RIETS’ Chag HaSemicha this year, which covered three years of graduates, 10 were either currently enrolled in or had gone to law school. Some may ask why people would want to go through more schooling; however, the commonalities between these two fields makes the two degrees complementary.
Rabbi Yona Reiss, a former director of the Beth Din of America, explained that the two pursuits both require intelligence and discipline. “When you are trained to be a rabbi, you are trained to be smart. You need to be able to decipher and understand complicated legal texts from the written Torah and oral Torah on a regular basis. To be a good lawyer, you need to be smart in similar ways, and therefore the two careers are often a natural fit.” It is not just about being smart, though. “There is a sense of rigor and discipline in terms of reasoning, logic and careful articulation that are important characteristics of both courses of study.” Rabbi Reiss, who received his semicha from RIETS, later earned the distinction of Yadin Yadin and matriculated from Yale Law School. Rabbi Reiss is currently the Av Beth Din of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (CRC).
Teaneck’s Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, himself also a lawyer, grew up surrounded by people in his community who were both rabbis and lawyers, such as his father and his rabbi, Rabbi Berel Wein, who gave up his law career for the rabbinate. When asked why he chose to pursue each field, Rabbi Pruzansky said, “It was the way I was raised; it was always natural, there was always a commonality of the two fields and they seem to be very complementary. They work well together.”
His growing up in such an environment made pursuing semicha and law the obvious choice for Rabbi Pruzansky. He went to Cardozo School of Law and after a year of work chose to get semicha from Yeshiva Bnei Torah in Far Rockaway under Rabbi Yisroel Chait. He practiced law for 13 years until he became the rabbi of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck in 1994, when the community saw his being the rabbi as a full-time job.
Finding one’s perfect career calling is never easy, and many people like to keep their options open for as long as possible. Both Rabbi Elchanan Dulitz, Esq., and Rabbi Donny Besser took this approach when they decided to pursue both semicha and a law degree.
Rabbi Dulitz studied at Cardozo School of Law and RIETS simultaneously. He knew that law would be beneficial even if it just acted as a stepping stone, and semicha gave him the opportunity to learn. When he finished the schooling, Rabbi Dulitz taught for a year, but it was a difficult experience, which led him to try out a career in law. He has been practicing law for over 25 years and has never looked back.
On the other hand, Rabbi Besser sensed that he would not want to stay in the legal field forever. After getting semicha from RIETS and graduating from Columbia Law School, he had a significant amount of student loans to pay back; therefore, the only realistic option was to work at a big law firm. Even though he had a great job, all he wanted to do was teach Torah. “I still had an itch for chinuch, and when the loans were paid off, I started looking into high schools.” After exploring and interviewing for a few years, he finally decided to take the leap. He joined the Ma’ayanot faculty in 2005 as a teacher of Gemara and Halacha, Torah programming coordinator and the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual leader).
Like Rabbi Besser, Rabbi Jacob Lewin, Esq., enjoyed Torah learning, which is what directed him toward semicha. “I connect to Judaism in many ways via Halacha and learning. Because that was my interest, I thought maybe I should get semicha,” Rabbi Lewin said. As for law, he always had an interest in it. He received his semicha from RIETS, and after getting his degree from Cardozo, Rabbi Lewin started working in commercial and general litigation.
Some who want to pursue a rabbinic career want a practical backup plan too. Rabbi Martin Rosenfeld, Esq., wanted to work with the Jewish community either as a rabbi or teacher. After receiving his semicha from RIETS and teaching for three years, he quickly decided that he would rather work with an entire community instead of just teaching one age group, which led him to take a pulpit position. Rabbi Rosenfeld’s wife advised him to go to law school because life as a pulpit rabbi is tenuous and it would be worth his while to have a practical degree in case he ever decided to leave the pulpit. He went to New England School of Law in Boston and took classes during the day and at night while also acting as the pulpit rabbi in Milford, Massachusetts.
Rabbi Rosenfeld was a pulpit rabbi for about 25 years before deciding to leave his last paying rabbinical position as the rabbi of Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn for a law job in 2005. He said, “It’s a privilege to serve, [but] it’s not an easy job,” and it was time to step down. He now does mediation for family law and loves it.
Rabbi Pruzansky felt that learning Gemara for so many years before law school did give him and many of his classmates an advantage. “You do get to develop your mind, to really hone your intellectual skills in a way that others do not,” said Rabbi Pruzansky.
Gemara can provide advantages, but it is not the only way to develop the skills required for law. Rabbi Rosenfeld explained that any field in which one is taught to analyze something properly and objectively will be similar to law. “In law you are trying to analyze what people can and cannot do,” said Rabbi Rosenfeld.
Rabbi Dulitz agrees. He explained that Jews are not the only ones at the top of the class at law school. “It is true that learning Gemara may give one more practice in logic, but it does not make one better than anyone else.”
Even though Rabbi Rosenfeld did not believe that Gemara is the only field of study that can help one master analytical skills, he did admit that some parts of law school were easier for him because of his Gemara background. During his time in law school, Rabbi Rosenfeld found that when students were assigned 20-page cases, his classmates would come back with 10-15 pages of notes. However, after so many years of analyzing cases in Gemara, he knew that no matter how long a case was, there were only one or two main points. This allowed Rabbi Rosenfeld to focus on what was important in each case and retain more in the long run.
It is not just Gemara skills that can advance one’s law skills, but the reverse as well. Rabbi Lewin explained, “In my experience, I think that my legal background, both law school and especially in practice, makes my learning more critical and makes me think through issues more than I used to.”
Rabbi Reiss believed that both his law career and rabbinical career have strengthened each other. “My rabbinic training made legal research and analysis much easier for me,” said Rabbi Reiss, “and conversely my legal training enabled me to understand many of the policy considerations of Jewish monetary law that are discussed by classical Jewish civil commentators.”
In regard to the skill sets overlapping in the actual practice of the two fields, Rabbi Pruzansky has found one of the biggest similarities to be that both fields are text based. “There is a certain ivory tower aspect to both the secular law—any law book—and then Halacha as well, and you have to bring it to life,” said Rabbi Pruzansky. “You have to apply it to people’s lives and make sure they understand that in the case of secular law, this is what civil society requires, and in Torah law, this is what HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants as well.”
Rabbi Reiss also commented on the commonality between the skills required to answer questions in both fields. “Much of what a rabbi is taught to do is problem solving, and that is very much a focus of legal work as well,” he said, “Questions will arise and one needs to develop skill sets to know how to research a question and how to render a clear, concise and yet comprehensive answer.”
The skills that overlap between the legal field and Gemara and Halacha study are obvious, but the analytical nature of the study required for the two fields is not always the main commonality in the day-to-day practice of these careers.
There are practical benefits to having a background in both secular law and Halacha. Rabbi Besser has developed a series of classes on comparative law. He also works with the Beth Din of America. “That’s an opportunity I would not likely have had without my law background.” Rabbi Besser and his wife, Rachel, took a sabbatical during the 2015-2016 school year, spending the year in Israel. During that year, Rabbi Besser was able to supplement his income by doing document review in Tel Aviv.
Rabbi Reiss has also been able to pair his law and rabbinical careers in his work as Av Beth Din. “Speaking from the perspective of the dayan, a Jewish law judge, it is also important to be familiar with the secular law to know how to apply it in cases where the principle of dina demalchusa dina, meaning ‘the law of the land is the law,’ becomes incorporated into Jewish law.”
The rabbis have also found overlap in topics dealt with in certain masechtot of Gemara and areas of law. Rabbi Lewin has seen a connection between litigation and the concepts discussed in Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Sanhedrin.
Even though not all fields of law have a connection to the analytical nature of Gemara and Halacha study, they can still relate to Judaism in general. Rabbi Rosenfeld has seen a connection in values between Judaism and mediation. “You have a certain orientation to try to find a peaceful resolution to problems,” he said. “In mediation, you try to find common ground and see what they actually need and what is most important, which is part of Jewish values as well.”
For Rabbi Pruzansky, the greatest commonality is the client contact. When he started his law career, he knew he did not want to work in a firm where it was all paperwork and money, rather he wanted to deal with real people, which is very much part of the life of a pulpit rabbi as well. “You get to make a difference in people’s lives, a real difference in people’s lives.”
Rabbi Reiss has found that the spiritual aspect of his rabbinical career makes his work special. “Nothing compares to the feeling of Divine Providence and spiritual meaning that pervades the work day of a rabbi.” This feeling can benefit a complementary legal career as well. As Rabbi Reiss explains, “It is valuable for those who go into the profession of law to have the spiritual sensibility of a rabbi to use their legal skills to uplift the poor and the vulnerable in society.”
By Esti Ness
Esti Ness is a Teaneck resident, a rising junior at Queens College and was a Jewish Link summer intern.