Bill Seeks to Increase Role of Jewish Law in Israel's Legal System

Justice Committee chair wants to set up an institute to 'translate' ancient Jewish legal literature into contemporary legal language accessible to judges and lawyers.

AP

The chairman of the Knesset’s Justice Committee has drawn up a bill designed to increase the influence of Jewish religious law (halacha) in the rulings of judges.

In recent months MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) has been promoting this legislation, which would set up an institute to “translate” ancient Jewish legal literature into contemporary legal language. This material would be available to judges when making their decisions, and also to lawyers.

“Any judge who wishes to avail himself of this service will submit his question to the institute and it will prepare an answer based on Hebrew law,” Slomiansky said. “Hebrew law” refers to Jewish religious law as applied to disputes adjudicated by secular courts.

Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky.
Emil Salman

The bill is a new version of a previous “Hebrew Law bill,” which recommended that judges turn to Jewish religious law in cases where there is no precedent to guide their decision. In Slomiansky’s bill, judges in such cases would be urged to turn first to international law for guidance, and only afterward to Jewish religious law.

However, because the new bill’s provision gives judges greater accessibility to Jewish legal rulings, Slomiansky said, “In my estimation the bill will lead to the increased entry of Hebrew law into court rulings.”

Lawmakers from the Kulanu party, which opposed the bill in its previous version, said they are considering joining Slomiansky as the bill’s proponents. Said Kulanu whip MK Roy Folkman: “I didn’t commit to signing the bill but said I would consider it.”

Slomiansky is aware of concerns raised by the proposed bill. “The law doesn’t stipulate that everyone will have to go to the mikveh (ritual bath) or cover their head,” he said. “There is no intention of educating anyone to become religious and lay teffilin (phylacteries). There is an answer for everyone here. From a social standpoint old Hebrew law is more advanced than current enlightened systems. Social demands in Hebrew law are stricter.”

According to the Legal Foundations Law of Israel, passed in 1980, judges are obliged to turn to “the principles of liberty, justice, integrity and peace, deriving from Israel’s heritage” in considering decisions that have no resolution based on legislation or prior rulings. Slomiansky claims that the term “Israel’s heritage” is problematic. “This could send judges to search the Hebrew Encyclopedia. The new law therefore stipulates clearly the term ‘the foundations of Hebrew law’ as a source of interpretation.”

In his words, “A judge who is scholarly won’t need this law in order to draw inspiration from Hebrew law. An anti-religious judge won’t use this law since it doesn’t compel him to. However, most judges are reasonable people and may use Hebrew law, which is currently not easily accessible.”

The new institute would be set up by the Bar Association and Justice Ministry.