The Knesset approved a bill in first reading on Monday that would require judges to rule “in light of the principles of Jewish law” if confronted by a case for which there is no current law or legal precedent.
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The bill, which must still be approved in two additional readings, passed by a vote of 36-30. It has been criticized over the past year over concerns that Jewish law discriminates against women, non-Jews and members of the LGBT community.
One of the bill’s opponents, MK Dov Khenin (Joint List), charged that it constitutes religious coercion. “This road is leading us to a halakhic state,” he said, referring to one governed by Jewish law.
Elazar Stern of Yesh Atid offered similar criticisms. Stern, an Orthodox Jew, abstained from voting, saying he did so to protest “the atmosphere we’re creating here in the Knesset, which is causing discrimination and domination by a religious minority which is forcing its views on the majority. Jewish law is falling victim to this atmosphere.”
MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) had a different objection. The bill, he said, effectively mandates “many things that nobody can say what they include or where they might infringe on our lifestyle.”
But Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) defended the bill, saying it “corrects an injustice that goes back decades. We’re linking up with Zionist leaders who wanted there to be Jewish law here.”
“This has no connection to a halakhic state,” she added. “The principles of Jewish law ought to guide us as a Jewish state.”
The bill is ostensibly merely a restatement of a 1980 law that required judges to rule in light of “the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace in the heritage of Israel” if faced with a case where neither the law nor previous rulings offers guidance.
But its sponsor, MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), explained, “There’s a problem with the term ‘heritage of Israel,’ which could send the judges to the Jewish Encyclopedia as well. Therefore, the new law clearly stipulates the term ‘principles of Jewish law’ as the interpretative source.”
Slomiansky has said in the past that the bill is meant to increase the influence of Jewish law on judicial rulings.
During the debate that preceded the vote, Slomiansky said he decided to scrap a provision of the original bill that called for establishing a special institute to “translate” the principles of Jewish law into modern terms and thereby make it more accessible to the judges.
“Unfortunately, I was forced to forgo this provision, but perhaps I’ll pass it as a separate bill,” he added.
He also cited several fields in which he said the courts have already adopted principles rooted in Jewish law, including compensation payments, the ban on selling state lands and rules governing apartment buildings.
“We’re telling the judges, instead of looking at Austrian law, look at the solution given by Jewish law; perhaps it will find favor in your eyes,” he said. “If it doesn’t find favor in your eyes, you’ll know what to do."