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When The Supreme Court Justices Learned Daf Yom

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Did Rabbi Meir Shapiro, zt”l, imagine, when he proposed the learning of a Daf Yomi at the Agudas Yisroel Kenessia Gedola in 1923, that almost 80 years later the Daf would be learned by the two Jewish justices of the United States Supreme Court (one of whom is female) and three other Jewish federal judges at a glatt kosher dinner attended by leading members of the bar in the Supreme Court’s majestic “Marble Palace?” As we celebrate the Siyum Hashas this week and begin again with the rigorous disciplined learning that the Daf prescribes, the historic event deserves to be retold.

The concept of a dinner to be attended by Supreme Court justices to celebrate the study of Jewish Law was the brainchild of Rabbi Noson Gurary of Buffalo. He had been teaching Jewish Law at Buffalo Law School and invited Justice Antonin Scalia, a devout Catholic, to come to Buffalo for a speaking engagement at the school. The event, held in 2001, was a resounding success.

As is always true at public sessions attended and addressed by Justice Scalia, he charmed the audience with his brilliance and wit. Reciprocally, Justice Scalia was captivated by Rabbi Gurary’s dedication and learning. The justice has long been an admirer of Talmudic scholarship, and he has even quoted it in his published opinions. A decision he wrote in 1999 began: “Talmudic sages believed that judges who accepted bribes would be punished by eventually losing all knowledge of the divine law.”

Justice Scalia and I were classmates in the Harvard Law School class of 1960, where we were both officers of the Harvard Law Review. We had a number of vigorous debates over issues of constitutional law; other Review editors viewed them as verbal battles between “the Talmudist and the Jesuit.” His views on the separation of church and state accord with the interests of the Orthodox Jewish community, and he has volunteered to speak at Orthodox Jewish events.

Rabbi Gurary’s dream was to establish a “National Institute for Judaic Law” through which scholars in Jewish Law could work on explaining the legal principles of civil halacha to judges, lawyers, and interested laymen. He discussed his ideas with Justice Scalia, who agreed to lend his support to such a project. For an event to be held in the Supreme Court Building, the sponsorship of a Supreme Court justice is needed. Justice Scalia agreed that his office would ask that facilities at the Court be made available for the opening event of Rabbi Gurary’s “National Institute for Judaic Law.”

Rabbi Gurary came to visit me in Washington to seek my assistance in bringing this dream to fruition. He also visited with other well-known lawyers in Washington including Professor Marshall Breger. We agreed to help, but I must admit that I was skeptical of Rabbi Gurary’s ability to carry out even the first step of his ambitious program – a glatt kosher sit-down dinner in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court Building.

There had been kosher receptions in the Supreme Court Building in connection with events of the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists. But never, before 2002, was there a kosher formal dinner with the guests sitting at tables served by a battalion of waiters. There are many restrictions that make such an event exceedingly difficult. And it is, in every real sense, an enormous financial undertaking. The Supreme Court’s rules regarding the use of its facilities prohibit any form of fund-raising.

But Rabbi Gurary persevered. He stopped by my office to tell me he would be visiting to discuss this project with the two Jewish justices, Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. I was uncertain of the reception they might give him, but he returned with glowing endorsements from both. They promised to attend the dinner and to say a few words.

About the Author: Nathan Lewin, a former president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council, has argued 28 cases in the Supreme Court of the United States and is an adjunct lecturer at Columbia Law School where he teaches “Religious Minorities in Supreme Court Litigation.”

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