Are You Sure? Book Cover
Book Cover

The book focuses on a difficult problem in comparative law: What should courts do when we do not have clear evidence? What should we do when we do not have enough evidence, or when the evidence is unclear or contradictory? 

Yudi Levine, a native Detroiter who now lives in Texas, has written a lively, funny, readable, informative book about what could be a forbidding topic — legal thinking in the Talmud. This book is not for everyone, though. However, if you fit into the target audience, you will certainly want to read his book, Are You Sure? (Volume 1) How Chazakahs Guide Us Through the Unknown (Shikey Press). 

The book focuses on a difficult problem in comparative law: What should courts do when we do not have clear evidence? What should we do when we do not have enough evidence, or when the evidence is unclear or contradictory?  

Most of our lives, we do not have enough evidence to reach certainty, and yet we still have to decide. 

Yudi Levine
Yudi Levine

Law courts certainly have to reach decisions. In law, some official has to have the power to decide. The legal system can emphasize rules for the official to follow “if the ball crosses the plate above the batter’s knees” or it can emphasize empowering the official “if, in the opinion of the umpire, the ball crossed the plate.” 

The Talmud devotes much thought to the nature of the rules. In the Talmud, a rule to use in cases of doubt is called a chazakah, a legal presumption establishing burden of proof. A chazakah, in Levine’s definition, “guides us through the unknown.” 

Levine provides us with a systematic classification of the different varieties of these rules. For each rule, he describes its function as it appears in the Talmud. Invariably, the Talmudic rabbis disagree about the scope and meaning of the rules, and later rabbis disagree about what the early rabbis meant. Levine guides us through the disputes with clear conceptual analyses. 

This is real scholarship. The enthusiastic forward for this book was written by Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University and director of its Program of Jewish and Israeli Law. 

So, the book provides significant material for serious study. But I described the book as funny, not a typical description of books of Talmudic analysis. Part of the humor comes from this: Levine illustrates each doubt with examples from the world of sports or of popular entertainment. 

His examples typically convince the reader of the continuing need for systematic thinking about conflicts, and often show the current value of the resolutions suggested by Talmudic rabbis. These discussions startle by rubbing together material from different cultures.  

Discussions of Talmudic thinking do not often consider the wisdom of the National Basketball Association when it decided to recognize Grant Hill and Jason Kidd as co-winners of the Rookie of the Year award. 

Would it have been a greater honor to recognize one as Rookie of the Year of the Eastern Conference and the other of the Western Conference? Or does the shared honor as co-holder of the Rookie of the Year of the whole NBA seem greater?  

Somehow, in Levine’s analysis, this question illuminates a dispute between Rambam and Tosfos about how to analyze the first Mishnah in Bava Metsiah, in which two disputants come to court, each holding the same garment and claiming the whole thing.

Discussions of Talmudic thinking do not often consider what Kanye West did when presenting an award to Taylor Swift at the 2009 Video Music Awards — interrupting her presentation to imply that Beyonce deserved the award. Levine judges Kanye West’s opinion correct — Beyonce deserved the award — but the action inappropriate. 

Levine uses this incident to illuminate the complex Talmudic discussion of a Kohen who seizes the agricultural tax that the farmer, by law, must donate to a Kohen of the farmer’s choice. If the court allows the Kohen to keep his ill-gotten gains, the farmer loses his right to choose a recipient, a right that perhaps should have no significant value. The farmer must not get paid for choosing one Kohen over another. Still, the court does extract the tax from the Kohen, according to Tosfos, as explained by Levine, because “grabbing is simply not the appropriate course of action.”  

Many writers could evoke pop culture and sports to illustrate Talmudic discussions and still write desert-dry prose. Levine’s jazzy, improvisational and eccentric diction succeeds in conveying his meaning while inspiring an amused smile or even a good belly laugh.  

But this book is not for everyone. 

One limitation comes because Levine sprinkles his text with a generous supply of Hebrew and Aramaic terms and names, transliterated in Ashkenazic pronunciation. 

Levine assumes his reader has at least some level of familiarity with the terms of Jewish law, with the sages of the Talmud and later contributors to rabbinic literature.   

A second limitation comes from the opposite direction: Some people who know which end of a Talmud is up have kept away from popular culture. They might feel lost or offended by Levine’s examples.  

The final limitation: Your reader has to have a sense of playfulness. I would not ask a somber person to try to read this book.

But, if you can navigate through a little Talmud, know some sports or pop culture and have a sense of humor, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Are You Sure? While you are at it, get some as presents for other folks who fit the description. 

This is a happy book. Reading it makes me smile. One aspect of the book, however, inspires sad thoughts. 

In a few years, the Talmudic analysis will still come across as fresh and accessible; anyone who studies Talmud would find them useful. By then the references to sports and popular culture may have become as obscure as anything in the Talmud; people might need detailed historical notes to make any sense of them at all. 

The legal analysis in this book will retain relevance for decades, while other parts might become incomprehensible. Maybe that will create opportunities for future scholars. 

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