A faithful servant under attack
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A faithful servant under attack

Israel’s justice minister has jumped into a roiling eddy that may yet drag him into the deepest part of a political oblivion he does not deserve.

Prof. Yaakov Neeman recently told the opening session of a conference sponsored by an organization called Halichot Am Israel’s that Jewish law contains “a complete solution to all the things we are dealing with” and that, “step by step, we will bestow religious law upon the citizens of Israel and transform religious law into the binding law of the state.”

Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day Neeman’s venue was well chosen for such a pronouncement. Halichot Am Israel’s stated goal is “to establish [halacha] as part of the justice system presently used in the State of Israel – as befits a Jewish State.”

Having made his statements, all quoted out of context, Neeman came in for vicious attack from secular forces on both left and right, and from non-Orthodox religious circles.

I agree with Neeman’s statement and with Halichot Am Israel’s contention that laws promulgated by a Jewish state need to be informed by Jewish law.

I also agree with him about something else: He did not call for Israel to be turned into a theocracy. “It is difficult for me to accept the things that were attributed to me, as though I had said that the laws of this country should be replaced with Torah laws,” Neeman said the next day. He was talking, he said, about “the importance of the rabbinical court system to the State of Israel” and how it could – and perhaps should – be used to relieve the strain on Israel’s court system by adjudicating financial matters, which halacha is well equipped to do.

The balagan unleashed by Neeman’s initial comments was not calmed by his subsequent disclaimer. Calls for the justice minister to resign or be fired are unabated more than a week later.

At best, these calls are misguided. What Neeman said is not new and it is not news. Israeli law since 1980 has required judges to take halacha into consideration when making decisions.

The charge against him is absurd on so many levels, but one in particular stands out. Neeman, who is Orthodox, has spent his entire public career, it seems, trying to bridge the great divides in Israel between “the religious” and “the secular,” and among the streams. The solutions he and panels he has headed have come up with over the years may not have suited non-Orthodox or secular tastes, but they did meet the test of practicality that opened doors to pluralism that otherwise would have remained shut.

Neeman, for example, conceived of a state-run conversion institute. All streams could participate in the education component under the plan, while the conversions themselves would be performed under Orthodox auspices. A Neeman-led panel also devised the compromise that allowed non-Orthodox streams to conduct their own worship services at “the Wall,” albeit at its southern end. This section of the Western Wall is known as Robinson’s Arch and is not under the control of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Neeman was and remains up against a state-sanctioned religious infrastructure that increasingly is dominated by the rigorously religious right. He knows firsthand how dangerous and destructive that infrastructure can be. Never would he advocate putting Israel’s law – and its fate – into their hands.

His conversion system provides the best example. The conversion courts are now controlled by rightist elements. In the last year, several hundred conversions performed by Orthodox rabbis were annulled because these rabbis were religious Zionists in orientation and this was unacceptable to the judges.

Above all else, Neeman knows that a system built entirely on halacha has never worked – and that halacha itself has always recognized this fact.

The original halacha, of course, was Torah law, in this case meaning the Written Law (or Torah with a capital T). It never existed in a vacuum. With it there always resided an “oral law” to interpret and implement its strictures. And alongside both was the so-called King’s Law.

In many ways, “the King’s Law is the law,” in the words of Maimonides. (See Mishnah Torah, The Laws Regarding Robbery and Lost Items, Chapter 5, especially paragraph 11.) The King’s Law is the law, that is, unless it is not the law. Nachmanides, for one, would put the brakes on when the king chooses “to make a burnt offering something not suitable” for such purpose. (See his final commentary in Leviticus [27:29].)

Maimonides is far more accepting of the extent of the king’s powers. In The Laws of Kings and their Wars 3:10, he best sums up the logic behind the King’s Law. The monarch is granted his extraordinary authority, Maimonides says, in order “to repair the world according to what the time demands,” meaning to create a workable system of law and order in the kingdom.

Whether limited or limitless, the reason for the King’s Law is obvious. Torah law is too theoretical to always be practical. Sometimes, it is also too high-minded. How else could a court that sentenced one person to death in 70 years be considered “tyrannical,” as Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah would have it? (See Mishnah Makkot 1:10. What follows is instructive. In response to Elazar ben Azariah’s comment, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said they would never have voted to sentence anyone to death had they been on the court. To this, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel II retorted that such reluctance could only serve to “increase murderers in Israel.” The same could be said about Torah law in its pristine state.)

There needs to be a civil authority with the power to legislate what is required to maintain order and promote the public’s welfare. The halacha serves as a guide, but not necessarily as the final authority.

Neeman knows this and he has devoted his life to acting on it. His remarks should be viewed in that context. The politics-as-usual folks on left and right who cave in to the whims of the rigorously religious right time and again need to back off and not denigrate or destroy one of the Jewish people’s – not just Israel’s – most faithful servants.

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