In 1842, two friars from the Order of St. Augustine founded Villanova University on a plot of land in Radnor Township. A private university, dedicated to a flourishing of Catholic intellectual life, with classes and administration led by priests, was an audacious endeavor in its day, and remains so now.
So how does Professor Chaim Saiman, a Jewish lawyer from Atlanta and the recently named Chair in Jewish Law at Villanova’s Charles Widger School of Law, fit into that mission?
“It is deeply my conviction that while we are a Catholic school, the conversation about law and religion is about law and all religion,” said Mark Alexander, dean of the law school.
Alexander began to have conversations with the provost and president of the university over the last year, he said, about creating a new position that would underline the law school’s commitment to a broader understanding of the relationship between law and religion. From early on in those discussions, Alexander had an idea of who he wanted to take the seat as the inaugural chair: Chaim Saiman.
Saiman, Alexander said, besides being a respected scholar and popular teacher, is “just a terrific guy. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Saiman, 44, grew up in Atlanta and, from an early age, was the sort of student who “read all the extra stuff” in school, he said. In high school, he attended Ner Israel, a yeshiva outside Baltimore, where he became interested in the role of law in his Talmud classes. “Why are we doing this?” he wondered, “and why are they calling it religious service?” But both he and his teachers did not yet have the tools to answer his questions fully.
Saiman ended up spending the next decade bouncing between yeshivot in Israel, Georgia State University and then Columbia University School of Law, where he earned his JD in 2001. However, he cites a class at Georgetown Law, where he initially enrolled in law school, as particularly important to his development as a scholar.
In his legal theory class, Saiman was “like a kid in a candy store,” perhaps the first and last time that saying has been applied to a legal theory class. But, for the first time, he found himself having the discussions he wanted to have, about “all these issues that I had been thinking about — about how law works, how law changes, how law develops, how decisions are made,” he said. He learned something important.
“There’s a whole world of people who think about this and write about it and talk sophisticatedly about it, and that was really a transformative experience,” he added.
Following a brief stint at a Wall Street law firm, Saiman thought he’d try something that didn’t quite adhere to the strictures of the legal profession.
In New York, he’d once met the legal scholar and judge Michael McConnell, who held a seat on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Typically, for a lawyer to clerk for such a judge requires an elaborate dance of reaching out through official channels, working social contacts and just generally approaching the whole endeavor in a formal manner. Saiman laughs now to think about it, but by his own admission, his approach was quite casual in asking McConnell if he might have Saiman on as a clerk in Salt Lake City. To Saiman’s surprise, the judge agreed.
“I could not believe it,” Saiman said.
It was an invaluable experience for him, both intellectually and professionally; the doors opened by his clerkship allowed him to enter Harvard Law on a fellowship, where he continued to study the questions that animated him about law and religion. While he was at Harvard, he wrote two articles for publication: one on contract law, and another on the Brisker method of Talmudic thought.
Since he arrived as a professor at Villanova in 2006, he’s taught contracts and insurance law alongside Jewish law, and continued to contrast U.S. law with halachah.
Last year, he published a book on the subject, “Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law.” The university put together a symposium on his work, where scholars approached the book from both secular and Jewish angles. It was a tremendous success for Saiman. And now, a year later, his new position is evidence of even greater appreciation for his work.
Saiman isn’t sure if he’ll ever fully answer his big questions about law and halachah — what purpose does halachah serve that law does not, and vice versa. But for now, he’s going to be at Villanova, trying to get as close as he can.