From abortion to business ethics to veganism: Rabbi Danny Schiff teaches his 100th class on Jewish law
Lessons for lawyersContinuing legal education

From abortion to business ethics to veganism: Rabbi Danny Schiff teaches his 100th class on Jewish law

Schiff said the CLE sessions resonate strongly — especially with people who know the importance of Judeo-Christian ethical codes in Western law.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki via Pexels
Photo by Sora Shimazaki via Pexels

Carolyn Slayton received her law degree from Duquesne University in 2012 but isn’t a practicing attorney.

The program director for the Pittsburgh-based Ryan Shazier Fund, though, likes to keep her attorney’s license active — so, about eight years ago, when she was a staffer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, she started taking Continuing Legal Education, or CLE, classes with Gefsky Community Scholar Rabbi Danny Schiff.

“When I went to the Federation, I wanted to keep my credits,” she said — and she found she could do that through the classes taught by Schiff.

Rabbi Danny Schiff (Photo courtesy of Rabbi Danny Schiff)
Schiff led his 100th CLE session — and his first in-person session since the pandemic — at Rodef Shalom Congregation on May 9. That triggered frequent program participants like Slayton, who has studied for multiple years with Schiff, to think about their favorite topics the educator has tackled.

Was it the one Slayton attended on the legal distinction between “honoring” and “keeping” Shabbat? How about the one on sports ethics and the ethics of the NFL?

“As someone who’s worked with an NFL player who was injured, that was an eye-opener,” Slayton said.

The six-part annual series has been sponsored for several years by the Alan Papernick Educational Institute Endowment Fund. The cost to participate with CLE credits is $35 per class or $195 for the series. Participation without credit is $35 per class or $165 for the series.

“I think more people should take advantage of Rabbi Schiff’s CLEs,” Slayton said. “It’s a great opportunity for the community.”

Schiff said the CLE sessions resonate strongly — especially with people who know the importance of Judeo-Christian ethical codes in Western law. He admits one thing, though. They’re not all that practical for, say, someone practicing real estate law in Allegheny County.

“I don’t think most of what we offer is practically applicable to people’s jobs,” Schiff said. “But I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of understanding Jewish law. When you talk about the Jewish striving for excellence, it undergirds these topics … and it motivates people to ask themselves, ‘Is that the sort of ethics I bring to work?’”

Schiff started his CLE program at the Agency for Jewish Learning in 1998.

“I don’t recall whose idea it was to do these. It wasn’t mine — I wish it was!” Schiff laughed.
He transitioned to the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh several years later.

“The idea of bringing Danny into our organization was to help establish the Jewish Federation’s thought leadership,” Federation spokesman Adam Hertzman said. “Having him teach in the legal area is a great part of that.”

“I think sometimes continuing legal education can be dry,” Hertzman added. “But Danny makes these topics come alive.”

At first, the program was offered about two or three times a year. But the need for attorneys to get their full 12 continuing education credits a year loomed large, and the program became increasingly popular.

Sessions quickly blossomed from 20 or 30 people in a room to 70 or 100, Schiff said. The rabbi also started accompanying his CLE sessions with a 20- to 30-page handout with supplemental reading, which he said he labors to flesh out as a “whole compendium of classic texts and modern thinking.”

During the pandemic, the sessions went virtual — but Schiff and those seeking CLE credit didn’t slow down.

In fact, the remote sessions, which the rabbi continued post-pandemic, were helpful for people like Schiff, who splits his year between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem. “People don’t even realize where I am at any given time,” he laughed.

“(Jewish law) remains a significant conversation in our current world,” Schiff said.

It all started on Jan. 30, 1998, when Schiff taught a CLE class titled, “Abortion In Jewish Law: A Case Study of the Development of Jewish Legal Texts.”

Schiff’s legal sources for the inaugural class were “drawn from numerous strata of Jewish legal history from antiquity to the present day, in order to demonstrate the dynamic nature of the Jewish legal system,” he said in the program description. He envisioned the first session while studying topics related to Jewish law and abortion at Hebrew Union College and “decided that nobody had written a halachic view on abortion.”

Schiff’s dedication to the program was matched by the diversity of the topics he embraced.

On March 16, 2018, he talked about “the Jewish approach” to capital punishment; on Dec. 14, 2006, he taught the legal differences between Christianity and Islam.

In 2019, it was veganism. On June 29, 2023, with the shadow of AI looming large, Schiff talked about plagiarism “in the internet age.” On April 7, 2000, he asked whether the separation of “church” and state is Jewish. (He revisited that one in 2009.) In 2017, it was about principles of Jewish business ethics; in 2000, the Ten Commandments; on Jan. 25, 2024, the concept of “usury” or paying interest on loans in Jewish law.

Schiff even has addressed more obscure contemporary topics, such as autonomous vehicles.

“You would think Jewish law has nothing to say about this?” Schiff said. “But, it does!”

“We’re offering [the CLEs] six times a year, and I don’t see anything stopping it until I retire,” he said. “And, then, I imagine, my successor will continue it.”

Schiff said he tries to keep the series as fresh as possible — a real point of pride for him.

“We need to keep on refreshing the topics all the time,” he said. “And that, I think, is unique.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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