For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people have been in exile. During this time, Jews have lived in nearly every country and under nearly every form of government, while, at the same time, maintaining their own laws as the basis for Jewish society. These Jewish laws (halacha) are based on the traditional understanding of the Torah by the great sages as set down in the Mishna and the Gemara (together called the Talmud) and later codified in the Shulchan Aruch.
The Talmud was organized and codified after the destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.), when the Jews were scattered across the Roman empire. Living under a foreign power, the sages recognized the importance of making clear the halacha regarding the “law of the land.”
“Dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law [and must be obeyed], is a phrase repeated numerous times in the Talmud and always attributed to the sage Samuel. According to Samuel, there is no question that a Jew must obey the laws of the land in which he/she resides... unless that law directly contradicts halacha (for instance a law ordering everyone to worship idols).
In certain cases, the rabbis determined that certain rulers and their unfair and harsh laws were dangerous to the Jewish people, and they therefore permitted the local Jews to "skirt the laws" or even to ignore them (such as the anti-Semitic decrees of the Russian Czars). In a country like the United States, however, there is no question that dina d’malchuta dina must be strictly observed.
What does this mean? This means that being a law-abiding citizen is more that just one’s civic duty, it is one’s religious obligation as well. Taxes, civil law, even the “rules of the road” are our responsibility to uphold.
This Treat was originally posted on August 6, 2009.
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