Rabbis tout Jewish option to courts

Finer points still unclear, such as when women would be allowed to testify.

October 18, 2006 01:44
4 minute read.
supreme court 298.88

supreme court 298.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])


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With a vision in their hearts of an Israeli state run in accordance with Jewish legal tradition, a group of leading religious Zionist rabbis and experts in Jewish law met in Jerusalem Tuesday evening for the official launch of a chain of rabbinic courts that aspires to replace the civil court system. "Who is smarter, Aharon Barak or Maimonides?" the press release promoting the launch asked rhetorically, assuming it is clear to all that the 12th-century halachic authority is the correct answer.

  • How to break Orthodox's stranglehold (op-ed) "Then why do you prefer Israeli law to Jewish law?" asks the PR notice, chastising those unfaithful Israelis who forsake Judaism's rich legal tradition for Israel's mishmash of British and Ottoman law. The initiative is called Gazit, which was the name of the historic venue of the Sanhedrin on the Temple Mount before the destruction of the Temple. Unlike the parochial haredi rabbinic courts, which serve ultra-Orthodox enclaves, Gazit men (women cannot be rabbinic judges) aspire to reach all walks of Israeli society. These rabbis and Jewish legal experts want Israelis - religious and secular, male and female, Jewish and gentile - to settle their monetary disputes and torts the Jewish way. Turning to civil courts, they say, shows a lack of Jewish pride. Gazit, which is a union of nine rabbinical monetary courts scattered across the country, can decide on a wide variety of cases from cellular phone antenna disputes to salary delays to car accidents to intellectual property claims - all according to a 2,000-year-old legal tradition. Assuming Gazit adheres to accepted legal procedure, its decisions would be enforced by the district courts like any other arbitration body. Certain non-egalitarian aspects of Jewish law need to be examined, admits Moshe Be'eri, 35, who has a doctorate in law from Bar-Ilan University and ordination as a rabbinic judge from the Chief Rabbinate, in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post. For instance, it is unclear when women's testimony can be accepted and under what circumstances or what legal weight this testimony carries vis-a-vis male testimony. Also, the status of non-Jews' testimony is unclear. But Be'eri believes these difficulties, which seem to contradict Israel's democratic and liberal foundations, are surmountable. Be'eri's motivation and that of his fellows in Gazit appears to be religious and cultural. "It is a shame that a nation with such a rich legal tradition turns to English law and Ottoman law instead looking to its own profound culture," said Be'eri in a telephone interview before the conference. Be'eri agreed that Gazit was part of a much larger cultural war being waged by religious Israelis to strengthen the state's Jewish character. Ramat Gan Chief Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, who spoke on Gazit's court procedure during the conference, said that the State of Israel's historic oversight of Jewish law in favor of other legal traditions was a mistake. "We have an ancient tradition with hundreds of thousands of legal decisions that can serve as a basis for an entirely Jewish legal system," said Ariel, who expressed his hope that Gazit would stimulate a sharing of cultures between civil and Jewish law. However, Professor Shimon Sheetrit, former Religious Affairs Minister and Greenblatt Chair of Public and International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that Gazit would have little impact on the civil law system even though it was a legitimate initiative. "They are a fringe group that has only minimal importance," said Sheetrit. "How many cases can nine arbitration bodies see in a year?" "The Chamber of Commerce has a much larger arbitration system," he said. "So do other bodies. I don't see it [Gazit] as a serious rival to the civil courts. The only people who will go are religious and haredi." Sheetrit said that he did not think there was a contradiction between Jewish law and liberalism. "But it depends who is interpreting the law." Gazit is backed by leading names in Jewish law such as former deputy attorney-general Nachum Rakover, former district court judge Gabriel Kling, former Supreme Court judge Zvi Tal and Shimon Ya'acobi, legal advisor to the State Rabbinic Courts. Mainstream rabbinic figures such as Judge Shlomo Diechovsky and Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, a member of the Chief Rabbinate's Governing Council, are also involved. Even before the establishment of the State of Israel, a group of religious legal scholars and rabbis attempted, with very limited success, to base Israeli civil law on the Jewish tradition. One of the leaders in this push was Professor Menahem Elon. In his seminal book Mishpat Ivri [Jewish Law], Elon blamed an overly conservative rabbinic establishment that did not rise to the challenge of adapting Jewish law to a modern state for the failure to influence Israeli law. In contrast to Elon and other religious legal experts, who saw Jewish law as a feasible alternative to British or Roman law, secular legal scholars saw Jewish law as nothing more than a source of cultural inspiration.

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