The renaissance of halachah in modern Israel

State of Halakha — Israel’s History 
in Jewish Law, Aviad Tabory, Maggid, £22.99


The founding of the state of Israel marked a religious, as well as political, revival. For millennia, Jewish law (halachah) had grappled only with individual and communal questions. From 1948, it had to contend also with matters of state.

Rabbi Tabory tells the story of halachah’s renaissance through a series of short, beautifully clear, essays addressing its response to key events in Israel’s history. One of these is the 1976 hijacking of a plane, which was forced to land in Entebbe, Uganda. The terrorists demanded the freeing of terrorists in Israeli jails in exchange for the hostages.

While the world waited to see what would happen, rabbis debated the issue. A mishnah allows captives to be redeemed, albeit only for their true value (Gittin 4:6), but what about swapping terrorists for hostages?

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, considered this permissible. The hostages faced certain death, while the terrorists to be released may be prevented from causing further harm. The lives of the hostages should take priority. In the end, no decision was needed. Before the debate had concluded, Yitzhak Rabin, the then Prime Minister, announced that the terrorists had been killed and prisoners released.

While halachic questions surrounding the raid on Entebbe ended up being theoretical, many other questions, such as whether Torah scholars should be exempt from army service or land swapped for peace, have influenced policy and public opinion.

Although Rabbi Tabory rarely offers his views on the issues he addresses, by drawing together diverse opinions, he shows the plurality of halachic perspectives, some of which acknowledge the limits of halachic reasoning when it comes to matters of national import.

For example, on the question whether land can be exchanged for peace, Rabbi Tabory cites Rabbi Chaim David Halevi, a former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, who appreciated that it was not for halachah to direct the state to act in a particular way. Halachah’s role is only to teach “fundamental principles.”

The fundamental principle here is the “preservation and security of the nation,” and it is for the state to decide how that can be achieved. It is hard to disagree with such sentiment.

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