Israel Passes Law Urging Judges to Consult Jewish Law in Absence of Legal Precedent

The law is intended to expand the influence of Jewish law on judicial decisions. Nevertheless, it is not binding on judges, and acts as a recommendation

Israeli lawmaker Nissan Slomiansky from Habayit Hayehudi party
Emil salman

The Knesset passed a law on Tuesday that urges judges, but does not require them, to rule in light of the principles of Jewish law if confronted with an issue on which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedents.

The controversial law passed its final parliamentary vote with 39 Knesset members in favor and 32 opposed.

The law is intended to expand the influence of Jewish law on judicial decisions. Nevertheless, it is not binding on judges; it is merely a recommendation.

The law also advises judges to consult “the principles of Jewish heritage,” a vaguer term that already appeared in existing legislation.

The law passed Tuesday is significantly softer than the bill originally sponsored by MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi). That bill would have mandated the establishment of an academic institute charged with translating Jewish law into modern terminology and thereby make it more accessible to judges and easier for them to use. But this provision ran into significant opposition in the Knesset, so the legislators decided to make do with adding Jewish law as one possible source on which judges can rely in interpreting legislation.

“The goal is that if there’s a lacuna in the law, instead of the judge running to look all over the world for compatible legal systems, he should look at Jewish law,” Slomiansky said. “If the judge wants to, he’ll use it, and if not, he’ll use his judgment and do as he sees fit. This isn’t a big revolution and there’s nothing here that ought to scare people.”

But MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) disagreed. “This is one small step for Nissan Slomiansky and one big step for Shaked, Bennett and Smotrich on the way to an undemocratic state governed by Jewish law,” she said, referring to Slomiansky’s party colleagues Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and MK Bezalel Smotrich.

“Jewish law, which doesn’t recognize the equality of women and others, which forbids homosexuality, which has punishments like stoning and the death penalty, is now a source of inspiration in Israel’s Foundations of the Law Act,” she continued. “In a democratic country, the law is whatever is decided by the people’s representatives, not what a mere minority believes that God has decided.”

MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) added, “This bill is part of a creeping, dangerous move. This government has proposed a series of bills whose goal is to change the foundations of the system, to distance the system as much as possible from progressive views of democracy and make it more nationalist, conservative and religious.”