Imagine there is a country named Xenovia that suspects a terrorist attack is looming. Imagine you are a Jewish citizen in Xenovia serving in its army, which employs torture to extract information.
Should you resign in protest? Or is torture permissible?
What does halachah (Jewish law) have to say about it?
That question was posed to high school students earlier this year in a moot beit din competition that draws teams of Jewish high school students from across North America.
It’s a question the four-person team at Jewish Community High School of the Bay answered — so well that they were awarded a first-place trophy in their division.
It marked the students’ third consecutive first-place win at the competition.
“We’ve made serious Jewish study cool at JCHS because we keep bringing back trophies,” said Rabbi Mark Goodman, coach of the moot Jewish court team and a Talmud teacher at the San Francisco school.
Every year, the teams are given a new case on a topic that has not yet been adjudicated within a Jewish law framework.
This year’s 21 participating teams received the scenario months before the competition. They had to determine an ethical response to the situation based on Jewish law and text.
The students present and defend their decisions before judges during oral argument at the competition, held this year in Washington, D.C.
Members of the JCHS moot beit din team are seniors Hannah Sosebee of Oakland, Joshua Skootsky of San Francisco and Netzach Miller of Berkeley, and junior Ethan Hall of San Francisco.
The four have worked together the past three years.
“This year was the hardest case we ever got,” Skootsky said. “The case asked us to apply halachah to a non-Jewish government, and halachah is not about that.”
The moot beit din team began meeting once a week in January. In the weeks leading up to the competition, they began meeting twice a week and eventually gathered every day after school for several hours at a time.
And even then, “When we weren’t meeting, we were doing research on our own,” Miller said.
The students consulted nearly 100 sources to craft their argument. About 30 made it into their formal bibliography, ranging from the ancient — the first chapter in Genesis — to the contemporary — such as commentary by J. David Bleich, a professor of Talmud and an authority on Jewish law and ethics.
“They have an unbelievable breadth of knowledge, and the other teams noticed,” Goodman said of the team.
The students concluded in their presentation to three judges at the competition that Jewish law did not and would not allow torture in Xenovia.
They reached this decision with several supporting arguments. Included in their deliberation was the fact that Jewish law instructs never to do something that takes away someone’s human dignity — and torture does just that. “It’s a commandment and there’s no way around it,” Miller said. For instance, “what happened at Abu Ghraib is completely unacceptable by Jewish standards.”
Goodman said their win shows that great ideas and serious Jewish study can happen even at pluralistic schools on the West Coast.
“This team has given Torah learning at the school a public face and a place of pride,” he said.