Interview: Jewish Monetary Law Should be Israeli Law
“If Israel wants to call itself a Jewish state, it has to be about more than just physically housing Jews,” says Rabbi Dr. Ratzon Arusi, the Chief Rabbi of Israel's Yemenit Jewish community and head of an organization that promotes the case for Jewish civil law in the Jewish state. “There has to be Jewish content in the daily life of the state. Otherwise, we have no answer to those who call us racists, giving rights to one group of people over another.”
This past week, the Netzach Yisrael organization, under Rabbi Arusi's leadership, held its 20th Annual World Conference on Monetary Law, discussing and promoting various aspects of Jewish (Halakhic) law on monetary issues. But the conference is more than about just halakhic minutiae, as Rabbi Arusi told Israel National News; it's about promoting Jewish monetary law to be the law of the land.
Each year, the conference focuses on a specific issue in the Jewish legal canon, and how the laws pertaining to that issue could be integrated into modern Israeli law. This year's conference, held December 13-15 in Jerusalem, discussed the laws of wills and inheritances, and their implementation in modern Israeli life. The conference is organized annually by Rabbi Arusi, a renowned expert on Jewish law, and is attended by social, political, and religious leaders, including Knesset Members and rabbis.
Monetary Law in the Consensus
“Monetary law is something everyone can agree on,” Rabbi Arusi said. “In the absence of the Sanhedrin, implementation of halakhic laws pertaining to criminal law or personal behavior is irrelevant at this time. But there is no reason not to draw from the rich body of Jewish law when it comes to civil matters, to disputes between individuals that need to be resolved. For Jews, it should be natural to turn to our own tradition.”
There is an expert on Mishpat Ivri, the term for Jewish civil law, in the Attorney General's office, a position held by former Deputy Attorney General Professor Nachum Rakover. Former Supreme Court Judge Prof. Menachem Elon made a point of using and referring to Jewish law when applicable to his rulings.
Israeli Law Recognizes Agreed-Upon Rabbinical Rulings
In fact, Israeli law recognizes decisions arbitrated by courts of Jewish law when both parties to a dispute agree in advance to abide by those courts' decisions. But reducing Jewish courts to the role of mere arbitrators effectively denudes them of a “real” court's authority. “Jewish courts of law, batei din, are not empowered to call witnesses or enforce decisions – for that, they must rely on secular district courts. We want those powers to be given to the rabbinical courts, giving them legal status at least equal to secular courts,” Rabbi Arusi said.
To that end, he said, his organization had prepared legislation to upgrade the status of batei din. “We have spoken to MKs and ministers across the political spectrum, not just from the religious parties, and we have a great deal of support for this move,” Rabbi Arusi says. “Last year, Dr. Yossi Beilin, certainly not an advocate for Jewish Law, sent us a very warm letter of support, saying that implementing this plan would be a great service for religious Jews who choose to bring their disputes to a beit din, and would serve the state as well by reducing the clogged calendars in the secular courts. And this year, Likud MK Michael Eitan, chairman of the Knesset Constitutional Committee, attended the conference and expressed his support.”
Upgrading Torah Courts
“Upgrading” the Jewish courts is something that the entire religious community can get behind as well, Rabbi Arusi said. “It was wonderful to see diverse parts of the religious community, from MK Moshe Gafni, associated with the 'litvishe' [non-Hassidic] yeshiva world, and MK Eliezer Mozes, from a Hassidic background, speaking at the conference and expressing their support along with MKs Yaakov Katz and Uri Ariel, from the national-religious camp. This idea can unify not only secular and religious, but the often-divided religious world as well."
Despite the strong political and religious support for his project, Rabbi Arusi said, problems abound. One is the lack of knowledge of Jewish Law amongst judges in this country. To that end, he said, “we propose gradually educating judges, and indeed implementing courses on Jewish law in colleges, high schools, and even elementary schools, in order to familiarize future judges and lawyers with the concepts.”
Meanwhile, he proposes filing opinions with the halakhic point of view on cases considered by courts, especially the High Court. “The High Court is in a unique position of helping to shape Israeli society,” Rabbi Arusi said. “The judges who sit on it cannot encourage use of Jewish Law if they themselves are ignorant of it. So, we propose sending them opinions, which they will be free to accept or reject as they wish – but at least they will become familiar with the concepts involved.”
And, of course, there's the media – the ultimate bugaboo that does so much to incite secular Israelis against anything having to do with religion. Rabbi Arusi said that he had been interviewed by Army Radio the night before this year's conference opened, and “I told them exactly what I am telling you – about the practicality of Jewish monetary law, the impossibility of implementing Halakhic law on criminal and personal matters, and so on. They recorded my entire discussion with them – and yet the next morning, they broadcast a very nasty piece, implying that we were trying to force secular Israelis to keep Shabbat and eat kosher by law.”
The media, members of which are adamantly opposed to anything that smacks of religion, “works day and night to prevent good ideas like this from being implemented, telling listeners that they will soon be living under Khomeinism.”
But, if they realized what was at stake, Rabbi Arusi said, even the media would get on board with this idea. “Without Jewish content and values, what justification does Israel have as a Jewish state? It isn't enough just to be the physical protector of Jews. If we give Jews as an ethnic group preference over other groups, we appear as racists in the eyes of the world. We pray that the media and those who fear this idea will see the light,” says Rabbi Arusi, “for the sake of the state. If we are a Jewish state, we must act like one.”