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The fight over Israeli law vs. Jewish law

A state governed by Jewish law is a not a state where all Jews can live in. God made room for the world through self-contracting. We must cease yearning for the day in which all of our ideological realities will prevail


The issue in Israel is not whether Minister of Justice Yaakov Neeman actually called for replacing Israeli law with Jewish law in front of a group of rabbis this week or was merely offering a messianic homily or ode to Jewish law. His remarks hit a raw nerve in Israeli society, for there is a sense that we are on the cusp of a cultural war over the nature of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. 
As is often the case in conflicts, the battle lines have been drawn in stark categories. In this case, it is being presented as advocates of democracy vs. the advocates of Judaism. And arguments are often overstated and oversimplified. In reality, Israel as a Jewish democratic state does not yearn to be a democratic state for Jews, but one in which Judaism and democracy combine to shape the values and principles of the country. 
Why do some find it so offensive and problematic to call for Jewish law becoming the law of the land? Such a claim often makes a number of deeply problematic assumptions:  
  • Jewish law is morally superior to Israeli civil law.
  • Jewish law – or possibly its experts, the rabbis – are more adept at dispensing justice than the public Israeli judicial system (over which the Minister of Justice himself presides).
  • That there can be an agreed upon corpus of Jewish law to govern an Israeli society with such an ideologically diverse Jewish population, not to speak of the country’s non-Jewish citizens.
Jewish law (Mishpat Ivri( has been the subject of much development and renaissance since the rebirth of Israel. As scholars attempt to construct directions and resources for current legal dilemmas out of our rich legal past, there is no doubt that aspects of Jewish law no less than Ottoman or British law can also serve as a resource for the modern Israeli legal code. 
Moses and the Tablets of the Law, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, IsraelThe problems arise when recourse to this legal body is perceived as shaping and determining our current moral discussions rather than reflecting and expressing them. When one mines the tradition to support and create a Jewish cultural foundation for modern moral and legal sensibilities, the relationship to Mishpat Ivri is healthy.
When Mishpat Ivri purports to reshape our moral principles and replace current law, then for all of us committed to Israel not merely as a Jewish democratic state but as a modern state, are deeply troubled.
While Judaism advocates for the good, it does not determine it and must always be judged, as was the case throughout Jewish tradition, by a moral standard that existed independently of it. 
As to the issue of adeptness, it is very questionable to what extent Jewish law has an advantage over legal systems specifically developed to meet the complexity of modern business, tort, criminal, and international law. Even if it could be brought up to par, at best it will be but an attempt to provide a Jewish language to mirror the existing legal knowledge.
Furthermore, who will adjudicate this law?  When one speaks of Mishpat Ivri the issue is ultimately whose version of Mishpat Ivri one is talking about. Is it a Mishpat Ivri dissected and developed by legal scholars in universities to fit current law and premises, or is it that which is controlled by rabbinic figures, whose knowledge of current legal discourse, not to speak of commitment to modern values and sensibilities, are questionable. 
Even more fundamentally, Israel is the homeland of all Jews. And we Jews neither agree on the content of Jewish law nor on what features of it, if any, are applicable and ought to be authoritative in our lives. While most Israelis believe that Israel as a Jewish democratic state cannot be Jewishly neutral, the legal arena cannot be the domain in which Judaism enters into the public discourse.
While we do not necessarily have to argue for a complete separation of state and religion, we must minimize the coercive effect of attempting to implement a Judaism that is not acceptable to all. Judaism has a role in our public culture, in our language, in our values discourse. It has a role in the educational system, where everyone has the freedom to teach a Judaism that is in sync with their ideological beliefs and commitments. It cannot be the obligatory framework for our national legal system. 
A state governed by Jewish law is a not a state where all Jews can live in. Lurianic Kabbalah teaches that the infinite God made room for the world through the concept of tzimtzum, self-contracting. For Israel to be the home of all Jews all of us have to cease yearning for the day in which all of our own ideological realities will prevail.
Rather we must all accept upon ourselves and walk in the ways of God and apply tzimtzum to our own ideologies, so that others can exist and live at our side.

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