What is the role of Jewish law in the life of a Jewish state? The question might seem abstract, but the Knesset has been debating it heatedly for months, often in discussions that deteriorate into shouting matches. Two proposed laws would enhance the influence of "Mishpat Ivri," or "Jewish law," in Israeli law. One targets the issue specifically by mandating that principles of 'Jewish law" be a point of reference for Israeli courts. The other does so within the larger context of a proposed new Basic Law (Israel's version of a constitution) formalizing Israel's identity as the "Nation-State of the Jewish People."
Supporters of Jewish law enhancement, in whichever form, believe it to be a proud expression of a unique culture. Opponents believe that any reference to Jewish law in the governing of the state is a clandestine attempt to turn Israel into a sharia-law-type Jewish theocracy. Whether these laws could ever pass is not clear, but the Knesset has spent copious time on them.
In a recent debate, some speakers argued that Jewish law is needed as a token of culture; some argued that it is needed to restrain the liberal tendencies of the courts; and others said it is not needed unless one wants to bring about the "destruction of the Third Temple"--that is, the secular civil State of Israel.
The philosophical question about Jewish law is not an easy one to answer. The Jewish state, Israel, is indeed a civil state ruled by civil laws, written by either pre-statehood mandatory authorities, or, in better cases, the post-statehood Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Jewish law is pre-modern, based on religiously saturated principles and ideas--while Israel, as a state, is secular and modern. And Jewish law generally has a bad name: chauvinist, tribal, at times violent (are you in favor of lashing?), often bizarrely alien.
It is even harder to answer such questions in a political atmosphere that rarely allows for serious discussion and that quickly resorts to suspicions, insults, demonization and fear-mongering. In such an atmosphere, legislators often forget that their actual role is to improve citizens' lives. Instead, they spend their time fighting about symbolic legal statements whose impact on Israel's reality will be minuscule, if any.
The wasting of energy on gratuitous symbolism is one of the least attractive features of these political times. In fact, the issue is mostly important as a way to understand the deteriorating state of Israel's...