Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Menachem Elon and Theocracy

February 15, 2013 12:36 am 1 comment

Menachem Elon. Photo: Wiki Commons.

One of the greatest of Jewish jurists, Menachem Elon, former Supreme Court Judge in Israel, died this week. He was steeped in the Talmudic tradition as well as the secular, and he was a moral, just human being. He stood for a balance between the standards of Jewish law and the more universal and sometimes contradictory demands of a pluralistic, democratic, and largely secular society. He was strongly opposed to theocracy. His classic “Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles” remains the best book by far for anyone who wants to understand Jewish law. He was a rabbi, graduate of Yeshivat Chevron, a top academic and he fought in the War of Independence. He stood for values, both religious and secular that are under threat as a new generation seems bent on turning Israel back to medievalism.

In the wake of the recent elections, different sectors of Israeli life are jockeying for positions in the government and campaigning for their own agendas. Amongst the most sensitive of the issues being debated is the nature of the state. Should it be a civil democracy, a religious democracy, or a theocracy?

Broadly speaking, there are three positions:

  • Israel is a secular democracy in which religion should not interfere in the private lives of its citizens regardless of faith.
  • Israel is a Jewish state, run according to Jewish law.
  • Israel should combine Jewish legal and spiritual values with those of secular democracy. The state will accept the Jewish calendar alongside the universal, and its prime cultural obligation is the perpetuation of the Jewish religion. It will recognize and protect other religions and enable their specific legal systems to function alongside, but not in conflict with, those of the wider state. It will not interfere in the private lives of individual citizens.

You will doubtless be able to guess that I identify with the third.

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, is what one might call a religious nationalist Zionist. He is typical of a new breed that is pushing for a more assertive religious position from a non-Charedi point of view. In the light of over 40 new members of the Knesset who are Orthodox, he has recently called for a review of the status quo in regard to religious matters and a redefinition of Israel as a Jewish state. I fear if he were taken seriously, this would be the next step towards a theocracy and a theocracy cannot possibly work where most of the population is either not religious or of a different religion.

This struggle over definition has been simmering for a long time. Israel has no constitution and its declaration of independence talked about establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. Its laws–a melange of Ottoman, British Mandate, and Jewish–are modulated by the Supreme Court and the Knesset; in addition, certain governmental agreements have accumulated over the years, commonly called Basic Laws. These include laws regulating religious matters, often called “The Status Quo”, laws concerning the status of marriage and divorce, according to which family relationships or their annulment are determined by halakha (Jewish law) in rabbinical courts, the status of Shabbat observance and kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) in all government and public frameworks, the obligation of the Israel Defence Forces to enable Jewish law to be observed within its ranks, and the exemption of those who wish to study Torah.

Melamed wants to pass a “chok yesod” (Basic Law) regulating these matters, instead of their being simply “agreements”. The reason he claims it is necessary is that Israel has adopted a basic law of human rights which enables the largely secular Supreme Court to gnaw away at the status of the rabbinical courts and Jewish family values, in the name of the “Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty”.

If Israel is really a Jewish and democratic state, he argues, it is unacceptable that the democratic side of the equation receives backing and significance in “Basic Law”, and in various other laws while the Jewish side receives only limited and inferior expression in “common law”. This, he claims, puts Judaism at a disadvantage although I find this hard to see happening on the ground.

I strongly oppose empowering the rabbinate or any religious authority with any increased basic legal powers. In a word, the rabbinate has failed its constituency. Once upon a time there were two separate camps in Israeli religious life. The State Rabbinate was predominantly religious Zionist, inclusive, and tolerant in its application of Jewish law to accommodate the national majority, which was traditional rather than Orthodox. The Charedi Rabbinate, with its Chassidic and Lithuanian wings completely devoted to their leaders, was at best disdainful of secular Zionism, but tended to stand apart from and ignore its religious institutions. It set much stricter standards for itself. It is also true to say that the Charedi Rabbinate was less nationalist and more concessionary when it came to Palestinian aspirations and the possibility of exchanging land for peace. Had things remained that way, I would have had less of a complaint. There was at least choice.

Over the years, as the Charedi community has exploded, it has infiltrated and taken over the moderate rabbinate and has made increasingly hard-line demands on the rest of Israeli society. The scandalous state of conversions in Israel amply highlights this trend. If their uncompromising mentality becomes enshrined in Israeli law, it will lead to a paralysis of inter-human legislation and will only damage Israeli civil society.

Both the Israeli Rabbinate and the Charedi world have manifestly failed to regulate themselves on matters such as sexual and financial abuse. They have not moved towards giving women fairer rights in divorce, inheritance, or custody. Such moral failure, if extended to the law of the land, would lead to the same collapse of religious morality that caused the destruction of both Temples and the exiles. The religious world must and will fight to protect its own. But I have no confidence that if given more power and authority it would protect others. Israeli society has not done enough to protect minorities. But I certainly do not think we could count on the established rabbinate to redress this balance. In most places (there are of course exceptions) that I have encountered religious courts, Batei Din, I have not been impressed with the way they have heard the pleas of “the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed”. I do not see the religious leadership in Israel or in the diaspora at present that I would have the confidence in to govern a state, or indeed a religion.

Israel must preserve its system of checks and balances and avoid at all costs granting religion even more power in the land. It is not that I think the Supreme Court is perfect. Far from it. But I want more counterbalances, not fewer. So far “human rights” have all but been ignored by the religious authorities.

So I fear the mentality of men like Melamed, and I mourn the loss to our people of men like Menachem Elon. They knew the value of Torah, but they also understood the nature of a modern state for all its citizens. Chaval Al DeAvdin. What a sad loss. If only there were more like him.

1 Comment

  • How can a man who calls Avigdor Liberman “Russian Mafioso” lay claim to ANY moral authority is beyond my comprehension. Mr. Rosen “fears the mentality” of Israelis? I fear his unbridled racism and sense of unjustified superiority. People like him are destroying the bond between us and Israel, and I increasingly fail to understand why “Algemeiner” is providing him with the venue to pour his bile.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Features Opinion Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Playwrite Iddo Netanyahu: ‘Hitler Always Talked About Peace’ (INTERVIEW)

    Late Friday night, on November 13, I was headed for bed when an ominous news bulletin flashed across my computer screen – something about a shooting in Paris. It wasn’t long before the “small number” of shootings and casualties began to double and triple and quadruple. The locations of attacks seemed crazily disorganized, and the tweets and videos became more and more horrifying. It was a long night for many stunned observers. We tried to understand what was happening, and […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Theater BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    BDS Gives Belgian-Jewish Actress New Lease on Life in Tel Aviv

    In an interview with the Israeli site nrg on Wednesday, Belgian-Jewish stage actress Noemi Schlosser recounted immigrating to Israel after her career in Europe was destroyed by BDS. Schlosser said she had enjoyed success in Belgium and international acclaim until she was targeted by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement for her pro-Israel stance during Operation Protective Edge — last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza. She described watching the theaters where she performed go from packed to nearly empty over a short period of […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    In Israel for Champions League Soccer Match, Chelsea Manager Says Team Not Worried About Security Situation

    The manager of the Chelsea Football Club said on Monday that he is looking forward to playing in Israel this week against Maccabi Tel Aviv, in spite of the security situation, Israeli news site nrg reported. Jose Murinho, who is already in Israel with his team to compete against Maccabi in the Champions League soccer match, was  asked whether he was worried about the current wave of Palestinian violence sweeping the country. “I have no worries at all regarding the security situation, and neither do […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    In the Middle East, ‘The Tail Wags the Dog’ (REVIEW)

    Blaming the West has become the most pervasive method of teaching for many Middle East studies departments, which are becoming the heart of pop-culture academia. Efraim Karsh, a distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at Bar-Ilan University and professor emeritus at King’s College London, in his latest book The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East, dispels this myth. “Britain’s ‘original sin,’ if such was indeed committed, lay not in the breaking up of Middle Eastern unity but […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About

    With Popularity and Sales up, ‘Mensch on a Bench’ Has Much to Smile About – The Mensch on a Bench is so much happier now than he was a year ago. Look carefully and you will notice that, whereas the previous Mensch had a decidedly worried look, this latest version of the popular Hanukkah toy is flashing an exuberant grin. Is the erstwhile Mensch smiling because he expects to be in some 100,000 homes by year’s end? In truth, the change in visage was suggested last year by the “sharks” on ABC’s Shark Tank […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Adam Sandler Updates Famous ‘Chanukah Song,’ Includes Hulk Hogan, David Beckham and Scarlett Johansson in Latest Version

    Actor Adam Sandler unveiled a new version of his famous “Chanukah Song” on Saturday, adding a slew of Jewish celebrities to the ditty’s updated lyrics. The comedian — who released the original song about being Jewish during Christmas in 1996 — performed the latest version of the comedic track during the New York Comedy Festival at Carnegie Hall. Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and “the two guys who founded Google” are among the famous Jewish celebrities now in the line up. Sandler also included lyrics about Star Wars‘ Princess […]

    Read more →
  • Music US & Canada Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

    Famed Israeli Violinist Itzhak Perlman to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom – Famed Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman will be among the 17 recipients of America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom next week. He is the fourth Israeli to receive the highest civilian honor in the US. “A native of Israel, he came to the United States at a young age and was introduced to Americans broadly when he appeared on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1958. Mr. Perlman made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1963 when he was 18,” a White House […]

    Read more →
  • Features Spirituality/Tradition Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots

    Don’t Think Israel is a Luxury Destination? Check Out These 6 Spots – While Israel is a common destination for cultural and religious pilgrimages, travelers seeking the best hotels, fine dining, and upscale relaxation less often find themselves in the Holy Land. Yet in recent years, the country’s burgeoning tech scene has attracted a business crowd accustomed to ritzy accommodation. Besides, the permanent summer of Tel Aviv and Eilat makes them prime destinations for European vacationers. Israel’s populace managed to tame the swamps and irrigate the desert — so going luxury should […]

    Read more →