Bezalel Smotrich peppered his short eight-minute speech on Sunday night at Yeshivat Merkaz Ha’Rav with quotes from the Bible, the Talmud and the Midrash. He didn’t look down at his notes. He’s a ben Torah, fluent in the canonical texts. And yet at the same time so ignorant.
Yes, he said, "We want the Justice Ministry, because we want to return our judges as of old... We want to return the law of the Torah to its place.” Smotrich promised to return Israel to the glory days of King David. He may as well have promised his ecstatic audience to resurrect King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
It’s incredible, but a man who has spent so many years of his life in yeshivas still thinks that the Jewish people in all its iterations, including the ancient kingdoms of the House of David, ever managed their affairs according to the "law of the Torah."
Yes, there are in the Torah and Talmud detailed chapters on jurisprudence, the laws of evidence and the lines on which a Jewish court system should be run. But not only is there little, if any, evidence of periods when Jewish nations or communities were ruled by such judiciaries, but all the evidence from just about every period points to the Jewish leaders, kings, prophets, judges, high priests, exilarchs, and yes, also the rabbis, ruling according to their political circumstances.
Jewish courts existed in different periods, whether as the Knesset Hagedolah or Sanhedrin, but mostly in legends. And when they were real, their powers were either very limited, or they were more political in character than religious.
Jewish society, whether in the ancient homeland kingdoms or in exile, was always characterized, as it is today, by tension between state and religion. The highest accolade the Tanakh ever gives a king is that he "did what was right in the eyes of God." Not that he subjected himself to judges ruling by the laws of the Torah.
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Yes, religious Jews pray three times a day to God "to return our judges as of old," as Smotrich pointed out on Twitter on Tuesday. But it’s a utopian vision that ends with the words: "and rule over us God, on your own, in grace and mercy." Smotrich also insisted in subsequent interviews and on social media that he meant the rules of the Torah "adapted for 2019." Surely he had no intention to stone homosexuals to death. But then who gets to decide how to adapt the Torah for our times?
When far-right politicians like Smotrich invoke the "laws of the Torah," or in other countries, "Judeo-Christian" or "traditional family values" or just about any other allusion to a purer mythological past, they are always doing so we won’t call them out for their xenophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia and any other form of oppression of minorities by the moral majority. It’s pure deflection.
And it allows other politicians to deflect as well. Just as Benjamin Netanyahu did on Monday when he tried to distance himself from his political ally Smotrich with a one-sentence statement – "The state of Israel will not be a state of halakha (rabbinical law)." Of course Netanyahu doesn’t want to denounce Smotrich’s racism and his insistence that Israel continue ruling another people. Much easier just to use Smotrich’s own terms of reference.
But liberal Israelis, and liberal Jews everywhere, also fall in to Smotrich’s trap when they talk of a medinat halakha. There is no such thing as a state run by rabbinical law, there never was and rabbinical law doesn’t have the tools to run a state anyway. It didn’t have them 2000 years ago when Jews were still sovereign in this land and the Pharisees, whose interpretation of the Torah serves as the basis for today’s halakha, were just one of a number of competing brands of Judaism.
Israel’s limited and fragile democracy is not threatened by a state run on Biblical law. The religious Zionist community that Smotrich represents is at most five percent of Israel’s population, probably less. The larger national-religious community doesn’t want Israel to be a theocracy, and the ultra-Orthodox perhaps do - but they are waiting for the Messiah to come and establish it.
What does threaten Israeli democracy is racism, occupation, corruption and resentment of the system, of which Smotrich is just one of many proponents. The way to confront him is not to buy his claim of representing Torah and Judaism.
Smotrich expects us to be thankful that he doesn’t interpret the Torah’s injunction against the "abomination" of two men having sex as a direct order to put them to death. Even though that is what the Torah actually says. Instead, he simply wants to exclude them from the public domain, as he tried in 2006, when he lead the "beast parade," a procession of donkeys and goats, in protest against Jerusalem’s Pride Parade. Though in an interview in 2015, he claimed it was something he did when he " was young and foolish, I’m sorry for it now."
His is a narrow and very selective interpretation of Jewish law and ethics anyway. As by necessity, any modern interpretation is. After all, just 16 verses before the Torah’s commandment against homosexuality is the one commanding us to love the stranger in our land for we were strangers in Egypt.
Smotrich calls for adapting the corpus of rabbinical law to Israeli political and social life, but of course he would never dream of adopting the most comprehensive rabbinical ruling ever given on an Israeli political issue – Rabbi Ovadya Yosef’s 1979 lecture when, as Chief Rabbi, he explained that by Jewish law, the sanctity of life trumps holding on to territory and therefore Israel must relinquish land for peace.
He also conveniently disregards the fact that contemporary Israeli law is influenced in many ways by Jewish law, on a wide range of issue from nature conservation to the protection of spouses from marital rape. Because if doesn’t serve his political purpose, then it’s not the Torah he’s interested in.
As we celebrate Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, this weekend, we would do well to remember that Smotrich and his ilk have constructed a Torah that fits their nationalist-supremacist purpose. And sure, there’s plenty of nasty bits in the Tanakh and Talmud that are great for that purpose. Some of those bits were never implemented, others were, and they reflect the brutish times in which they were written.
Just as there is plenty of stuff in the Torah and the rest of the Jewish canon which can inspire us to build the kind of democratic societies that are anathema to the Smotrichs of this world.