Professor writes book on relationship between secular and religious law in Israel

February 28, 2020

There’s an increasing trend toward theocratic nationalism with an ethnic character in both Israel and the world at large, according to Professor of Israel Studies Alexander Kaye (NEJS) who spoke about his new book, “The Invention of Jewish Theocracy,” in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Wednesday. 

The book, which Shayna Weiss, the Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies,  described as representing “the best of Schusterman,” focuses on the interaction between religious and secular law in Israel and the tensions between those who want Israel to be a secular state and those who want Israeli law to be based on religious Jewish law.

Kaye laid out three points that he said are central to his book. The first was that the belief that Israel ought to be ruled solely by religious law is a new one, originating in the 1940s and 1950s. Kaye said that there is a history of Jewish people governing from multiple sources of law, not merely religious law.

The second point was that the belief that Israel ought to be a theocratic state did not originate in the aftermath of the 1967 war, but with the beginning of Israel itself. Kaye said that this belief was held by many of the founders of the country but that it was unpopular and thus unexpressed until after the aforementioned war.

Finally, Kaye said that while those who advocated for theocratic rule saw it as a rejection of modernity and secularism, the view that secular law and religious law could not coexist was a relatively modern one.The idea of a single system of law, or legal centralism, originated from protestant European philosophy, and only supplanted legal pluralism in the last few centuries. Kaye said that for most of their history, Jewish people lived under other systems of law in addition to their own, giving the example of Jews in the Ottoman Empire.

In addition to Kaye and Weiss, professors David Katz, a visiting professor in the Department of History, and Yehudah Mirsky (NEJS) also spoke, adding their own input on Kaye’s book.

Katz praised Kaye’s book, but disputed a few points. Firstly, he argued that Rabbi Isaac Herzog was distinctly English in his upbringing, rather than Irish. He cited Herzog’s education at Oxford, where he earned degrees in math, classical Semitic language and marine biology. Katz also disagreed with Kaye’s conclusion that secular Israelis should engage with religious Zionists and attempt to compromise. Katz said that religious Zionists have mastered the art of winning small victories that serve only to energize their base and infuriate secular Israelis. He mentioned a recent statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, who said that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens.”

Mirsky also praised the book, saying that he had been waiting for this book to be written, even before he knew someone was writing it. He spoke about the autonomy with which Jewish communities operated in medieval Christian and Muslim societies as an example of legal pluralism. He also talked about the rise of legal centralism, and how it was spread by the British in the territories of their empire. He also said that the relationship between Jewish legal philosophy and the state is comparable to that of Islamic legal philosophy.

Kaye is working on another book on the topic of Jewish exile.

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