Israeli Law, Not Jewish Law

Cabinet and Knesset members must oppose the trend toward expanding the jurisdiction of Jewish law

The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court.
The Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court Moti Milrod

One of the High Court of Justice’s more sensitive rulings was its circumscription of the rabbinical courts’ powers. Even though the latter rule according to Jewish law, the limits of their authority are determined by a law enacted by people – the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law of 1953. This law gave the rabbinical courts exclusive authority over marriage and divorce for Israeli Jews, as well as the power to deal with issues “ancillary” to marriage and divorce, such as child support, custody and division of property.

In 2006, the High Court ruled that in the absence of explicit legal authorization, the rabbinical courts may not hear financial disputes outside their area of jurisdiction, not even as arbitrators. Ever since, the ultra-Orthodox political parties have been trying to pass an amendment to the law that would authorize rabbinical courts to also rule on contract disputes, property disputes and ordinary torts – as long as both sides agree to use these courts rather than an ordinary court. This week, the Religious Services Ministry published a government bill on the matter, which joins the various private members' bills submitted by Haredi MKs over the past decade.

But unlike the private members' bills, which sought to grant the rabbinical courts authority to serve only as arbitrators, the government is seeking to give them full judicial authority, on one condition: As in arbitration cases, and unlike the judicial authority they have in matters “ancillary” to marriage and divorce, the rabbinical courts will be able to hear civil disputes only if both parties consent. The problem is that such consent is meaningless in a situation where women can be pressured into consenting “of their own free will.”

Even the bill’s drafters seem to understand that ancient Jewish law isn’t suitable for settling modern-day legal disputes. As a result, they inserted a provision stating that no ruling may undermine “civil” legislation that defends the rights of women, workers or people with disabilities. But this isn’t enough. Legal disputes in Israel ought to be settled according to Israeli law, whose norms were determined by Israel’s legislative and judicial systems.

Cabinet and Knesset members must oppose the trend toward expanding the jurisdiction of Jewish law. All communities, including the ultra-Orthodox one, should be encouraged to use the state’s courts. If the Knesset’s laws are adequate for the purposes of receiving state funding, they’re also good enough for the purpose of settling financial disputes.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.