Fiery Knesset debate over courts using more Jewish law gets out of hand

MKs unleash verbal assault on committee chairman Slomiansky.

December 6, 2017 05:02
2 minute read.
Nissan Slomiansky



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The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee had to take a mid-session timeout on Tuesday, when its debate over whether to instruct courts to use Mishpat Ivri (Jewish religious law) more often in judicial rulings got out of hand.

The bill directs judges to apply traditional Jewish principles in cases in which the answer to a legal question is in doubt, as part of a broader push to place greater emphasis on the state’s Jewish character.

Chairman Nissan Slomiansky had intended to push through votes on a second and third reading of the proposed bill, while giving a minimum of time to lawmakers who oppose the move to propose amendments.

Many lawmakers object vehemently to the bill, claiming it would lead to the trampling of modern and democratic principles, especially by abusing women’s rights in divorce proceedings in which traditional Jewish law gives some legal advantages to men.

Slomiansky’s approach led to many of those lawmakers becoming furious and unleashing a barrage of verbal assaults on him and on the process until Slomiansky called for a recess.

Eventually, the committee returned and gave more time to hear proposed amendments, putting the votes off until the next scheduled meeting.

Most of the debate revolved around whether to accept a compromise suggested by committee legal adviser Gur Blai.

Blai proposed that in place of directing judges to consider Mishpat Ivri when addressing unclear legal questions, the bill could read that judges should consider “the principles of freedom, justice, fairness and peace of the Mishpat Ivri and of the heritage of Israel.”

The legal adviser said that formulation would make Jewish law a more prominent part of the judicial calculus than it is at present, but would retain the balancing principles that underlie modern democracies, making sure the pendulum would not swing too far from modern expectations.

Slomiansky rejected Blai’s idea, saying it diluted the proposed increase of prominence for Jewish law, and arguing that he had already made numerous concessions to the opposition’s objections in the text he was proposing.

Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli said Slomiansky’s bill would harm women whose husbands tried to deny them a divorce under Jewish law and cause “the balance between Judaism and democracy to be thrown into the garbage. The time has come that you listen to women,” she said.

Zionist Union MK Revital Swid warned that the new bill could lead to judicial rulings completely at odds with modern notions. She asked what would happen if Jewish law dictated capital punishment, which Israel has mostly abolished, and prescribed using methods like “stoning to death.

“Yarmulke wearers are not the only ones living in Israel,” she said. “There are other people and their way of life must also be respected.”

Meretz MK Michal Rozin said, “You want to inject systemic inequality in a place where there already is none.”

Joint List MK Dov Henin came at the issue from a different angle, suggesting “the heritage of Israel” be more specifically defined to include prominent modern thinkers like Karl Marx.

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