Analysis: Call for Torah law upsets secular public

By David Hazony, December 10, 2009

The Minister of Justice, Yaakov Neeman, has provoked a storm by calling for the law of the Torah to be applied in Israeli courts.

Mr Neeman, an Orthodox Jew of the religious-Zionist variety, told a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem that “We must restore the former glory [to the judicial system], so that the justice of the Torah will be the justice commanded in the state of Israel… Israel should regain the heritage of our fathers… which contains a complete solution to all the questions we deal with.”

These words have triggered calls for Mr Neeman’s resignation, and condemnation from opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former Justice Minister Amnon Rubinstein, and other leading secular public figures. Why?

Read in the most charitable light, Mr Neeman’s words are neither new nor all that surprising. He is not the first Orthodox figure to give voice to a dream that thousands of years of rabbinic discourse about the best way to live one’s life should find expression in Israeli law.

Nor is he alone among legal authorities. Israeli law is grounded in a variety of legal traditions, including British, American and Ottoman jurisprudence, all of which have entered into Israeli legal rulings to one degree or another. Since the state’s founding, the idea of mishpat ivri, “Hebraic Law”, has often been propounded and developed as a crucial alternative source of legal precedent.

Yet somehow, Mr Neeman’s words do not sound like a pragmatic effort to put a little Judaism in those areas of law that can reasonably be influenced by Jewish tradition without undermining democracy.

They are, rather, messianic words, fighting words, revolutionary in their tone and scope.

They suggest not the careful application of some parts of Jewish law while leaving aside those that most clearly violate the principles of a democratic state (such as the equality of women), but the latter’s wholesale displacement by the former — in short, advocating a state of halachah.

The mantra of “restoring the former glory” was the election slogan of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, whose pretence to democratic commitment has been constantly undermined by its routine consulting with its rabbis before taking any political position, and by its explicit delegitimisation of the Israeli courts.

This is what upsets so many Israelis. Mr Neeman’s words have touched the rawest nerve among Israel’s secular Jews, many of whom are deeply alienated by the imposition of halachic norms in Israeli life — especially in areas such as divorce, burial and other personal status issues. The fear that religious politicians will try to foist halachah on Israeli democracy is never far below the surface of nearly every social debate.

Such words are particularly incendiary when spoken by a sitting minister of justice.

Mr Neeman issued a tepid clarification on Tuesday. His words, he stressed, were taken out of context. They were referring principally to tort law, and certainly not meant to advocate a state of halachah.

But in politics, one often has to wonder whether a gaffe is deliberate. In recent days, opposition to the settlement freeze has taken on the appearance of a serious grassroots protest movement. The government may be looking for ways to reassure the religious-Zionist sector, which overlaps heavily with the settler movement.

If that was the aim, however, it has backfired. The backlash has been far more ferocious than any benefit that might have been gained. It may well cost Mr Neeman his job.

Last updated: 3:39pm, December 10 2009