After the fall of the Second Temple in the first century, Judaism gradually became a juristocracy, a society ruled by lawyers. Jews call these lawyers “rabbis,” but consider the training that rabbis traditionally receive: it consists primarily of many years of law school, learning the Talmud and other sources of Jewish law until one becomes knowledgeable enough to become a legal advisor and judge. are.
The Jewish juristocracy helped keep the Jewish people united during their dispersal. You could travel from one Jewish community to a distant community hundreds of miles away and be assured that others would accept you as a fellow Jew, and that the laws and prayers would be much the same.
But the juristocracy also caused problems. First of all, lawyers are trained to see every problem as a legal problem and therefore to tackle problems with increasing legality. So from relatively humble beginnings, halacha [Jewish law] gradually took over every aspect of daily life.
Certainly, the rabbis have developed doctrines to prevent over-legalization, such as the prescription that laws that a community has not followed for a long time are no longer laws. But such regulations were rarely followed in practice. Instead, law became law, custom became law, and new laws were created to ensure that existing laws were not broken. For many Jews, the law became a heavy burden rather than a path to connecting with God.
Another problem was that rabbis, that is, lawyers, often became the leaders and rulers of the community. From Sa’adia Gaon who served as Exilarch in the eastern Holy Roman Empire to the Council of the Four Lands in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, rabbis often possessed both secular power and religious authority. And as Lord Acton noted, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Over the centuries, the power built up by the rabbis was subject to explicit and implicit criticism from various dissenting movements and individuals. The Karaites believed that the rabbis had strayed too far from the written Torah. Kabbalists implicitly felt that Jewish legalism was inadequate to explain the precarious condition of the Jewish people and the chaotic state of the world. Various messianic movements sought immediate redemption, with overthrowing the yoke of law often high on their agenda. Early Hasidism rebelled against the idea that being educated in the Talmud, something out of reach for many poor rural Jews, had a higher value than a spiritual connection with God. The Reform movement attempted to reorient Judaism around ethical monotheism and prophetic values, correctly predicting that the juristocracy would largely fail to win the loyalty of Jews once they integrated into Christian societies. Socialist Jews held public Yom Kippur celebrations to mock pious observance of the law at the expense of material concerns.
And of course, Zionism itself was a dramatic rebellion against the authority of the rabbis, who insisted that Jews take responsibility for their own fate and restore Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael. Zionists completely rejected the accepted view of the juristocracy that Jews should wait for the redemption of the Messiah, and in the meantime obediently obey the law.
So the irony. Zionism, especially in its dominant secular variant, was the culmination of centuries of continued distrust of the idea that the law is the salvation of the Jews. And yet the idea that law matters above all else, and that lawyers can be trusted with the fate of the Jewish people, clearly persists in the cultural DNA of Israeli Jews.
The Israeli Supreme Court has acquired for itself more power than any other Supreme Court in the world. Even more striking, the attorney general has the power to personally undermine almost any Israeli law or policy, a power that is shocking to those of us accustomed to the American concept of the separation of powers. And both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General have seized these powers based on only the flimsiest of rationales.
Hence the irony referenced in the title of this blog post. Secular, left-wing Zionists have seen their power eroded for decades. The peace process is on life support. State-run industries have been replaced by economic liberalization. Rabbinic authority regulates family and conversion law with ever increasing strictness. Religious Zionists have gradually replaced secular kibbutzniks in the military elite. Shockingly illiberal parties now routinely serve in government.
None of these developments succeeded in galvanizing the Zionist left. Instead, relatively small proposed limits on the authority of the attorney general and the Supreme Court, which would still have powers unheard of in most of the democratic world, have led to months of mass demonstrations and general social unrest.
Do not get me wrong. I think some of the proposed reforms are sensible, but many are unwise. Israel could have developed a system of checks and balances that did not rely so heavily on the judiciary, but that did not happen. Therefore, significant legal reforms must be accompanied by other reforms that create new checks on the Knesset and incumbent governments.
That said, however, the irony is palpable. The trust that the Zionist left has in the judiciary and the attorney general is faith in a modern form of jurisocracy. The veneration of the law and the lawyers who interpret and enforce it have more than a little in common with the traditional Jewish veneration of halacha and prominent rabbis. Ultimately, it is not surprising that Israelis, the descendants of people who lived under lawyer rule for centuries, would naturally look to lawyers to lead society.
So allow me, as an American Jewish law professor, and as a fellow secular Zionist, to point out the obvious. The rule of law is important. Fetishization of the law and trust in lawyers, whether learned graduates of yeshivas or secularists with degrees from Hebrew University and Oxford, are problematic.
Despite being a young, successful “Startup Nation,” Israel faces many challenges, including its own internal demons and divisions. Lawyers and advocates play an important role. But Jewish history teaches us that there is such a thing as giving lawyers too much power, and trust in the wisdom of lawyers is often misplaced. In short, whatever problems you think Israel faces, don’t expect lawyers, even those who serve on Israel’s Supreme Court, to ultimately be the solution.
[cross-posted at the Times of Israel]