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Marc Kornblatt
Writer, Filmmaker, Citizen

Putting Judicial Overhaul Into Biblical Context

Where Would The Sages Stand? (Photo by Marc Kornblatt)

The rabbis of old have inspired me to view the judicial reforms led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a rarified light. When his coalition tells us its members are the protectors of Israel’s democracy, I think of Rabbi Akiva and Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rashi, and Rambam, great scholars who demonstrated the power of interpretation.

Some interpretations carry greater weight than others. In the debates between Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai, for example, the laws’ findings (halakha) favored the House of Hillel.  

Netanyahu’s majority coalition insists that its overhaul of the judicial system will improve the way the Supreme Court functions and strengthen Israel’s democratic foundation. The reforms will guarantee that the people who voted for the coalition members have their say.

Judicial Reform Supporters (photo: Marc Kornblatt)

The opposition interprets the overhaul as a sure way to undermine the judicial system and diminish Israel’s standing among the world’s other democracies. In interviews with American television journalists, Netanyahu has labeled their alternative interpretation of his overhaul as “silly.” 

Consider this week’s Torah portion, Shofetim (Judges), which begins: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all of your cities that the Lord your god gives you for your tribes and they shall judge the nation with righteous judgment.”  (Deuteronomy, Ch.16:18) 

Clearly, the coalition’s current work is about appointing judges. However, what “righteous” means in Shofetim is subject to interpretation. 

After his judicial overhaul is complete, Netanyahu has promised to install his colleague Aryeh Deri as deputy prime minister. One of the founders of Shas, a political party guided by the Torah, Deri was convicted and sent to prison for taking bribes. He was also found guilty of tax evasion. 

For these reasons, the Supreme Court deemed Deri unfit to serve as a minister in the government. Netanyahu’s interpretation of fitness clashed with the Court’s. (Yes, a minister is not a judge, and righteousness and fitness are not exactly the same, but bear with me.) Once the judicial overhaul is complete, the prime minister’s new Supreme Court seems destined to favor Bibi’s interpretation of Deri’s level of fitness. 

As for Netanyahu’s own fitness for office, Deuteronomy 17:14-18, in part, says that a king chosen by the Almighty should not have too many horses, too many wives, nor too much silver and gold for himself. He should also have two copies of the Torah to read from all the days of his life so that his heart does not become haughty.

The words “too much silver and gold for himself,” like the word “haughty,” are, again, subject to interpretation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a long-pending court case hanging over his head for accepting an abundance of cigars, cases of champagne and fancy jewelry from various people. The prosecution’s interpretation of those gifts is that they were bribes. Netanyahu’s interpretation is that they were gestures of friendship. The “silly” bribery case, seems destined for dismissal once his overhaul is complete. The same goes for two other trials for fraud and breach of trust.

Yes, the prime minister is not a king. He is the democratically elected leader. Whether he reads the Torah every day is his concern. Whether or not he rules with a haughty heart is the nation’s.

Finally, we have Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party and Netanyahu’s current Minister of Finance who also carries a portfolio in the Defense Ministry.

Years ago, Smotrich was arrested on suspicion of plotting to blow up the Ayalon Highway to protest Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. He spent three weeks in jail. Following that, he helped organize the “Beast Parade, as a counter-protest against a Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. 

Since then, Smotrich has advocated separating Jewish and Arab mothers in maternity wards, banning Arab political parties, and annexing the West Bank without granting Palestinians equal rights. Most recently, as Finance Minister, he announced that he will freeze a higher education plan for Arabs in East Jerusalem, and he will withhold $55 million to Arab municipalities so the funds don’t fall into the hands of organized crime.

Near the end of Shofetim, in Deuteronomy 20, we read: “Only from the cities of these people that the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall not allow any person to live. Rather, you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite, the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite so that they do not teach you the abominations that they performed for their gods.”

Hittites, Amorites, and the others are long gone. What they represent to readers of the Torah is subject to interpretation. Might Smotrich see them and today’s Palestinians as one in the same? 

What kind of future is Netanyahu heralding for Israel? How would the great rabbis of old interpret his vision of democracy?

About the Author
Filmmaker, playwright, actor, and children's book author Marc Kornblatt is the producer/director of the award-winning documentaries DOSTOEVSKY BEHIND BARS, STILL 60, WHAT I DID IN FIFTH GRADE, and LIFE ON THE LEDGE, among others, and more than 20 web series, including MINUTE MAN, ROCK REGGA, THE NARROW BRIDGE PROJECT, and BLUE & RED, RESPECTFUL ENCOUNTERS OF THE POLITICAL KIND. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2019 and now live in Tel Aviv.
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