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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimksi )
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman accused politicians and the press of exaggerating statements he made Monday, in which he appeared to express hope that the state's current legal system would soon be dictated by the Torah.
Kadima politicians, former justice minister Yossi Beilin and legal authorities called upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to fire Neeman for his remarks. But the Prime Minister's Office had no comment, and cabinet ministers close to Netanyahu defended Neeman.
"It is hard for me to accept what was attributed to me in the reports, as if I said that at this moment the laws of the state should be replaced by the laws of the Torah," Neeman told the Knesset hours after his remarks at a conference in Jerusalem on Jewish monetary laws Monday night were revealed by Army Radio religious affairs correspondent Talila Nesher.
"I merely emphasized the importance of Jewish jurisprudence in Israel and the work of rabbinical courts that solve financial disputes by Jewish law. Courts in Israel are overburdened, and therefore we should encourage disputes to be resolved by an alternative judicial system in cases where both parties agree," he explained. "I didn't say anything new in the conference."
Neeman had told rabbis and rabbinical judges attending the conference that "restoring the former glory, so that the law of the Torah is Israel's law, is really the appropriate way to endow upon us the law of Torah in stages, step by step."
He repeatedly used the phrase "restoring former glory," which is Shas's slogan and can refer to the golden age of Sephardi Jewry in Spain or to when the Holy Temples were standing and the Jewish people were governed by Jewish law.
"Israel should regain the heritage of our Fathers, the primary and ultimate words of the Torah, which contain a complete solution to all the questions we deal with," he said.
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef sent a greeting to the conference, stressing the halachic prohibition against using secular courts, and saying that there was no halachic difference between gentile judges and Jewish judges deliberating according to gentile laws.
He called on the public to choose Jewish courts in any litigation.
Yosef quoted a law that states that "anyone who legislates in secular courts is raising one's hand to the Torah of Moses our teacher. He is deemed a wicked person and cannot not be counted in a minyan."
The Justice Ministry tried to quell the uproar sparked by Neeman's words.
"Minister Neeman spoke in broad and general terms about restoring the stature of Jewish law and about the importance of Jewish law to the life of the country," the statement read.
Former justice minister and current opposition leader Tzipi Livni told Army Radio on Tuesday morning that such sentiments should "be troubling to every citizen in Israel," and expressed confidence that Israel's characteristics enabled a healthy blend between contemporary law and Halacha.
Beilin added that "a justice minister who
advocates an Israeli theocracy needs to leave his post immediately."
Kadima MK Ya'acov Edri called on Neeman to
resign, saying that with his remarks, the justice minister had expressed a total lack of trust in the establishment he had been appointed to head.
Meretz chairman Haim Oron slammed the justice minister for his "disloyalty" to Israel's principles.
"It's unfortunate that the justice minister has detached himself from the basic values of the State of Israel and is not 'loyal' to the civic and statesmanlike principles," Oron said, in a play on the meaning of the justice minister's name, which is Hebrew for "loyal."
"His declarations indicate a worrying process of 'Talibanization' of Israeli society that has escalated to delusional levels," he warned.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Reform Movement in Israel, said in response, "A justice minister that is supposed to strengthen the democratic rule of law and the legal system in Israel has chosen instead to give his backing to a group of people who see civil courts as 'goyish,' and in so doing undermines the trust citizens place in the rule of law.
"Allowing Halacha to take over Israeli law does not fit in with basic democratic principles and with the enlightened and progressive character of the State of Israel," Kariv said. "The fact that the justice minister of the State of Israel supports such a move, even as a personal wish, is a bad sign for Israeli democracy."
Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, however, "applauded the justice minister for his intention to base the Israeli legal system on Jewish law and give it a Jewish soul."
"No one should have reason to fear the declaration of the minister, who embodies a combination of religious values and pluralism," Herschkowitz said. "But there is reason to fear a legal system that does not faithfully represent the diverse opinions of the Jewish people."
Following what was termed an "insufficient response" to the allegations, Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines on Tuesday afternoon called to conduct a "swift discussion" in the Knesset's Constitution, Justice and Law Committee, of which Paz-Pines is a member, and summon Neeman to it.
"A hidden agenda has been exposed here, showing a dark outlook," Paz-Pines said in a statement. "The justice minister expressed explicit mistrust in the Israeli justice system, as well as an aspiration to turn the state into a state of Halacha. A justice minister who does not believe in the system he is in charge of should ask himself what he is doing in his position."
Gil Hoffman and Matthew Wagner contributed to this report.