The Halachic State

(First published at

     The headline alone must send shivers down some people’s spines.

      It has become fashionable in Israel to repudiate any notion of a medinat halacha, a state that is run according to Jewish law. Religious politicians who utter the phrase are forced to retract, and still its mere utterance clings to their biography as an obvious indication of their venality. Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken to beginning almost every speech about the judicial reforms with a disclaimer that “we are not creating a halachic state.” It is true that the judicial reforms do not envision a Torah state. Unspoken is that such a declaration by the PM and others repudiating a halachic state should be a point of pride; it is actually a point of shame.

     The greatest fear of a medinat halacha pertains to enforcement and punishment. The specter of Iran, the Ayatollahs, the Revolutionary Guards and the morality police always lurk in the background, as if for us – what would be misnamed a theocracy – is actually a bludgeon that would be used to beat people, suppress them, and make their lives miserable. Such an approach is the product of much ignorance and not a little tendentiousness.

      Even when the Sanhedrin functioned, enforcement of halacha in personal matters was rare and punishment – especially capital punishment – was almost non-existent. The Talmud (Makkot 7a) states that a Sanhedrin which executed an offender once every seven years – perhaps even once every seventy years – was considered a bloody, violent Sanhedrin. What detractors of the halachic state seem not to realize is that coercion of religious practice, including but even without punishment of offenders, is a failure of religion, not its success. To compel someone to engage in a religious ritual or requirement is almost by definition not construed as service of God – but rather service of man, and service of man that is prompted by fear of man and not reverence for or love of God. That is the degradation of faith and the opposite of what the Torah desires for us. Somehow, as implicit in the story of King Shlomo and the two mothers (I Melachim 3:16), harlots plied their trade while the First Temple stood. From other sources it is clear that that the same occurred during the Second Temple era within shouting distance of the holiest site on earth. It is certainly not that it was encouraged, God-forbid, but there are limits to human enforcement.

     If so, once we get beyond the fears that there will be mass executions for driving on Shabbat and floggings for pork eaters (personally, I would not object to public lashing of abusive spouses or child abusers, but that’s me), what else exercises the detractors? To be sure, there are many who perceive halacha only through the prism of those groups that choose the most stringent opinions and make them normative and are otherwise less than fully engaged in building, defending or developing the nation. That is also the product of ignorance of halacha, as if Jewish law demands that every person must wear black and white (never a color) and women should never be seen in public. That was never the norm in Jewish life – especially when we were governed according to Jewish law. People whose only frame of reference for a Torah state is the fear of enforcement sadly miss the point; indeed, some fear punishment for their own sins while some fear the missed opportunity to punish others for their sins. Both are misguided.

     Every sophisticated pulpit rabbi knows how to make the halacha “user friendly,” to be colloquial, which is not to say that everything every person wants to do must be accommodated by Jewish law. Sometimes the answer is “no,” and that “no” is conveyed in a way that reinforces to the questioner the beauty of the halachic system and how such conduct is unworthy of a servant of God. And sometimes the answer is “yes,” depending on the halachic reality, person, the question, and other factors.

     Much of Jewish law already pervades Israeli society – Shabbat, the holidays, tzedakah, the primacy of Torah study – although we could certainly improve our fulfillment of the mitzvot between people in the way we talk to each other, drive on the roads, and care for the underprivileged.  And Jewish civil law is used in legal adjudications in the Israeli court system although not as often as it could or should be (based on the Foundations of Law Act, 1980). Of course, it is not as if a halachic state will change little or nothing, for that would mean it is superfluous in a modern society.

     The primary fear engendered by the imaginary bogeyman known as the medinat halacha seems to be the perceived loss of freedom for the non-observant to do what they want to do when they want to do it. These fears are stoked by people who delight in exposing extreme halachic opinions that are either distorted or not normative. But law by its very nature – secular or Torah – places limits on what we may or may not do, whom we may marry and how many at one time, how we conduct ourselves in public, and what obligations and rights individuals possess in society. The question really is what is the provenance of the value system that underlies the law? Is Western law, with its disconnect from all that is godly and the human degradation, corruption, unhappiness, and decadence it has often produced, morally superior to Jewish law? Actually, I think it is morally inferior, and the moral confusion it has sowed among youth, the god of materialism that it exalts, and the declining population in Western countries, is living proof of that.

     The transition to a halachic state will require some adjustments to modernity, but which are already found within the system. Leading sages have pointed out that the classic rules of evidence (e.g., crimes must be witnessed by two qualified and unrelated witnesses who forewarn the criminal) are hard to sustain in a society where crime is rampant but already in biblical times the king – in our case, a duly elected government – was able to act extra-judicially in order to promote the general welfare of society. But the burden of proof generally required to prosecute illicit conduct should itself comfort the detractors who feel that a medinat halacha would encroach on their private, personal conduct. It never did, it is easy to see why it did not, and impossible to see how it ever could.

     Additionally, litigation usually involves the resolution of clashing rights of two individuals or groups. I would prefer that the values underpinning those rights be grounded in the eternal Torah than in some transient human concoction. After all, that is what should be expected of a Jewish state – not the pale mimicry of foreign laws and values but the expression of the greatness of Judaism and our Torah.

      Beyond that, what are the advantages of a medinat halacha? There would be nothing wrong with gently and lovingly encouraging the observance of Jewish law. Living a halachic life – besides heeding God’s will – provides a sense of discipline, self-control, and meaning. It is abundantly clear that being observant is not a contradiction to having a full and consequential life. That is why we find Orthodox Jews who are lawyers and doctors, generals and engineers, tycoons and scientists, and even rabbis. The observant life does not require that we run away from society but that we engage it and sanctify it.

       Recent studies have shown that observant Jews tend to be happier people. (Not everyone, of course. I know some gloomy people but often that entails their personal struggle to rein in instinctual tendencies that are prohibited and thus they live with internal dissonance. And as a general rule, the more unhappy the person, the more he or she feels the need to poke around in the private lives of others.) But having a purposeful life with built-in times for reflection on deeper issues, like Shabbat, is almost a guarantee of greater happiness and productivity in life. These are not merely mercenary considerations but rooted in the very gift of Torah and the land of Israel to the Jewish people.

     As such, failure to evolve into a medinat halacha is actually counterproductive. Such a state would enhance people’s lives, have greater respect for human dignity, and better marshal society’s resources to help the needy in all spheres. It would ensure that the law is applied equally and fairly to all and not, unfortunately, as we perceive the prevailing legal system today. Worse, it is self-defeating! Our very claim to the land of Israel is based on the Torah. Ignoring the Torah undermines that claim, as there is no cogent or incontrovertible secular claim to this land. And as history has taught us, Jewish possession of the land of Israel is dependent on its level of observance, a point reiterated constantly in the Torah and the prophets.

     Obviously, this has to be a gradual process as so many modern Jews are estranged from Torah observance, many through no fault of their own.  As such, perhaps it would be wise to begin with the Torah’s commandments, leaving aside rabbinic enactments and customs until observance takes root in a majority of the population.  Ironically, a Jewish nation that honors and observes the Torah could ease some of the perceived burdens the secular population often complains about. For example, many authorities (including Rav Shimon Shkop) assumed that when the Jewish state would be established public transport could operate on Shabbat in a way that was acceptable according to Jewish law. In a secular state, such would lead to the disappearance of Shabbat and make a mockery of what is termed a “Jewish” state; in a Torah state, such could enhance the observance of Shabbat for all.

     Perhaps we are not yet ready for a medinat halacha, and of that we should be ashamed, not proud. A proud Jew yearns for the implementation of the Torah system as he or she does for the Messianic era. Those who dread it do so either because they do not believe in the Torah, do not properly understand it, or wrongly compare it to the governance of communities in the exile. 

     We are heading in that direction in any event; as the Midrash (Mechilta Yitro) states, “God would not save a nation that is forever disloyal.” The false allure of Western progressivism still lingers in a segment of society and has to fade away. The fears of a medinat halacha also have to be assuaged, and one way to do that is for good people to stop demonizing it, disparaging it, apologizing for it, or running away from it. That requires education, patient and loving, accompanied by the realization on the part of today’s detractors that the halachic life is rich and fulfilling, speaks to everyone, challenges but also gratifies us, and is fully applicable to a modern state. Surely there will be bumps in the road and much discussion about the details but nothing we can’t handle as a nation. A good beginning might be a proclamation, similar in spirit to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which enunciates our basic principles and aspirations to be a holy nation.

     What could also diminish the fear and even increase the enthusiasm for a halachic state would be fostering the notion that such a state would be open, embracing, and joyous rather than angry and repressive. It would certainly help that cause if religious, observant Jews always reflected the Torah’s openness, depth and joy. When we model the Torah personality, or at least strive to do so, it increases respect and love for Torah.

     On the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence, it is appropriate to acknowledge God’s gift of the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel. But we should acknowledge as well that God’s gifts were not limited to the land of Israel alone but also encompassed the Torah that was to be the governing constitution of that land. May we soon be worthy!

Six Additional Knocks

    By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky (This is reprinted with permission of Mizrachi magazine.)

On Yom Haatzmaut in 1956 – Israel’s eighth Independence Day – Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik  zt”l presented a memorable address later published as Kol Dodi Dofek (“The Voice of My Beloved Knocks”). The Rav highlighted six divine “knocks” on our communal consciousness to which Jews should pay attention– knocks precipitated by the establishment of the State of Israelthat revealed God’s hand in history. 

    There was the “political” knock in which, uncharacteristically, the United States and the Soviet Union in the early years of the Cold War both voted in favor of a Jewish state in the land of Israel; the “military” knock, in which a tiny outnumbered Israel prevailed over its powerful neighbors; the “theological” knock, in which the new State of Israel refuted Christianity’s theory of the eternal wandering Jew; the knock on the hearts of our youth, who perceived the divine role in history and redemption after the concealment of the Holocaust; the knock of “self-defense,” in which our enemies realized for the first time in two millennia that Jewish blood is not cheap and Jews will fight back aggressively; and finally, the creation of a refuge for Jews and the beginning of the end of the Exile.

    The Hand of Providence was already visible then. In the ensuing decades, and now as we celebrate Israel’s 75thanniversary, it is appropriate to highlight six additional knocks in which God’s presence in Israel’s history and statecraft has been manifest.

     The first knock was the capture, trial and execution of Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust. It was a brilliant operation that defied international legal norms and was denounced by the United Nations and the New York Times. But it established a new norm: the State of Israel is the custodian of Jewish history, represents all Jews, and will exact justice against our past tormentors.

     The second knock is perhaps the most obvious as it has shaped Israel’s history ever since: the Six Day War. It was a miraculous victory of the few against the many that followed several weeks of dread and apprehension across the Jewish world as Arab armies massed on Israel’s borders. But the Arab nations were maneuvered into a series of fatal and foolish mistakes and Israel regained control over its biblical heartland and the Old City of Yerushalayim. That we have unfortunately squandered many fruits of that victory and more than 90% of the territory does not detract one iota from the feelings of exultation at witnessing the triumphs of the Ba’al Milchamot,” the true Master of War.

    Nine years later came the third knock – the miraculous raid on Entebbe. After an Air France plane that departed Israel was hijacked and diverted to Uganda, Israeli special forces swooped into Entebbe Airport and rescued the hostages. UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, later revealed to be an ex-Nazi, condemned the rescue as a “serious violation” of Ugandan sovereignty, not having lifted a finger to save one Jew. But Israel did, reinforcing the notion that Israel is responsible for the fate of all Jews across the world.

     The fourth knock is so blatant that we tend to gloss over it: Kibbutz Galuyot, the ingathering of the exiles. As pious Jews continue to pray for the realization of this majestic, prophetic vision, it is actually happening before our eyes. Jews have returned to the land of Israel from well over 100 countries and forged a society that can get raucous at times but has become a melting pot of Jews of different backgrounds, customs and historical experiences sharing one common denominator: we are Jews who have come home, precisely as was prophesied by Yeshayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, Zechariah and many others.There is no louder knock that should cause us to open our eyes and behold God’s wonders.

    The fifth knock is the religious revival that has occurred. Israel’s Socialist founders assumed that devotion to Talmud Torah and observance of Mitzvot would wane in a generation or two to be replaced by the new Jew, a secular Israeli. But the Yeshivot Hesder program began in 1953 and the Haredi world was rebuilt and the religious population exploded. The Six Day War catalyzed a teshuvah movement that brought myriads back to Torah. There are more Jews learning Torah today in Israel than at any time in any place in Jewish history. And the full integration of halacha in a modern society in well underway but still a work in progress. Nonetheless, the unanticipated renaissance of Torah evokes Yechezkel’s vision (36:26) of the returnees to Israel being implanted with a “new heart…and a new spirit.” It is a Torah revolution that is only gaining strength and adherents.

    The sixth knock is the Start-Up Nation, Israel as an economic and technological powerhouse that benefits the world with our creativity and drive. This too was unexpected though prophesied. There is no surer sign of redemption that when Israel will yield its produce again (Sanhedrin 98a) and Rav Kook foresaw that reborn Israel would expand and innovate in all worldly matters (Orot Hatorah 9:5). Israel is a world leader in hi tech, all so that the Torah can be brought to full expression in the modern world.

    The voice of my Beloved “knocks” – in present tense! There are certainly additional manifestations of God’s providential hand knocking on our doors. The questions are: do we hear it? And how do we respond?

Happy Yom Haatzamut!

Democracy’s Woes

Democracy’s Woes

   What do Donald Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu and Jair Bolsonaro have in common? They are all right-wing politicians who have alternately won and lost elections and refuse to go away quietly. They all infuriate their enemies, political and otherwise, in ways that defy balance, reason, and common sense. And they are all persecuted by legal and judicial establishments that are controlled by the left, and this is the most ominous of all the comparisons.

    Brazil’s Bolsonaro recently lost a hotly contested election which he claims was rigged – and now finds himself under investigation by the man who defeated him. Netanyahu has been investigated for the better part of almost two decades and currently is in the middle of an interminable trial for conduct that is routine for most every politician. He would not be prosecuted but for the irrational hatred he elicits and the rational fear on the left that he keeps winning elections. And Trump is Trump.

    To be sure, no man is above the law, but no man should be beneath the law either, crushed by a behemoth of a legal system that is politicized and weaponized against an individual target. It is not a person being investigated for possible crimes committed but a person being scrutinized, like searching polluted for chametz with a candle, in the hopes of finding a crime for which he might be charged.

     Joe Biden, rather than lecturing Israel on democracy and the proposed judicial reforms here that will make our legal system fairer, would be wise to worry about his own democracy, the abuse of governmental power against individual citizens, and the dire need to rectify a system that no longer prosecutes most thefts, drug use, assaults or illegal aliens but uses its enormous resources against disfavored people who are targets.

    The weakness of the case against Trump is illustrated by two points. First, the misdemeanor charge of falsifying business records could not stand alone as its prosecution is already precluded by the statute of limitations. Thus it was a charge in search of a felony, which was necessary to get the prosecutor’s foot past the courthouse door. The felony chosen –campaign finance violation through payment of hush money – is difficult to prove and not only because it requires intent. It is difficult to prove because it is not illegal to pay hush money and when the money was repaid to Trump’s now disbarred attorney who paid it… the campaign was already over. In other words, the business records were allegedly falsified in 2017 through payments to the disgraced attorney but obviously could not have impacted a campaign that concluded in November 2016.

     Indeed, even if it was a “campaign contribution,” a highly debatable point, Trump would have been under no obligation to report it until the end of that quarter’s filing period, i.e., December 2016, long after Election Day. It is no wonder that federal prosecutors and the previous Manhattan District Attorney declined to prosecute. There is no case. But it is also no wonder why the current Manhattan DA decided to prosecute: he literally ran for office on a platform of getting Trump. That screams prosecutorial misconduct but the judicial system in America has become so politicized, and democracy so despoiled, that most liberal judges in the chain of jurists that will hear the initial motions and their appeals will not risk their careers and the leftist opprobrium they will receive by dismissing the case. Joe Biden –please focus on America and its judicial and democratic woes!

     There is a growing sentiment across the globe that democracies don’t work and its election results should be voided – unless the left wins. When the left wins, democracy is declared sacred and beyond reproach. Government decisions cannot be challenged no matter how tiny the government’s majority. Thus, in Israel , the first and second Oslo Accords – both catastrophic mistakes – passed with slim majorities, and the second only secured its miniscule majority by literally bribing two far-right wing Knesset members with cabinet positions.  Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, muscularly exercising his slender advantage, did not hesitate to taunt his opponents and those who protested his policies, even saying they could “spin like propellers” but the Oslo process would go forward.

     Whatever criticisms are levied against the Netanyahu government for its conduct of the reforms, they should pale before the heavy-handedness, even brutal dismissal of any opposition, directed towards the Oslo protesters. Similar, the utter contempt showed by the Sharon government – and the indifference of the judicial system – towards those who protested against and were victimized by the disastrous and immoral expulsion from Gush Katif. If anything, the current government has been too deferential to the opposition, certainly in comparison to its oppressive predecessors. We can only imagine what would have happened – and how the media would have reported it – if today’s protesters had received the Oslo and Gush Katif treatment.

     In France, as well, the streets have been overwhelmed with demonstrators who oppose President Macron’s unilateral decision to raise the retirement age by two years (how is that for democracy, but apparently there is such a provision in French law). Businesses closed, strikes were declared, police were attacked – and it is a good thing that Macron did not try to change the composition of the judicial selections committee, or who knows what would have happened. The protests in France, the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter riots in America, and the recent demonstrations in Israel may all have diverse motivations but they share in common discontent with, even rejection of, the democratic process.

    It comes out that when the left wins an election, they win and implement their policies. But when the left loses an election, they still win, because they claim the election was tainted, try to frustrate the implementation of the government’s policies, suddenly claim that the government’s responsibility is to respect the feelings of the defeated minority and decline to govern, and launch prosecutions of the winner.

     In essence, democracy is only a successful and admirable mode of governance when one side wins – the left. Something is wrong with that picture.

      The current effort to achieve some “consensus” on judicial reform sounds good on the surface – as long as it is not intended to impede or thwart the platform on which the current government ran in the last election.  Dialogue is great because no one side has all the answers and cogent suggestions can come from the unlikeliest sources. But, as Margaret Thatcher put it, caustically, consensus is “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?”

     We shall soon see if the opposition’s idea of consensus is to so water down the reforms as to make them meaningless and inconsequential.

      The number of democracies in the world has steadily declined in the last two decades after reaching its peak in the early 2000’s. That is partly because some fledgling democracies abandoned that path and partly because some strong men seized power. But does democracy work anymore? Sure, democracies generally protect individual rights better but not totally, as witness the ongoing struggles for religious liberty in the US and Israel. There are favored rights and disfavored rights, favored citizens and disfavored citizens. But there is a price to be paid for elections that provide only an illusion of rule by the people.

      And, as Winston Churchill reportedly said, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Most voters are easily manipulated, which is why negative campaigning is hotly criticized but continues unabated; it works. See how much of the Israeli public genuinely believes that our democracy is in danger if the justices cannot have control over judicial appointments, something that does not exist in any democracy on the planet. And in exchange for voting every few years in elections that practically mean less and less (even though each one is advertised as the most important in history), citizens in most democracies have to tolerate high rates of crime, personal insecurity, high taxes, deteriorating infrastructure, government favoritism of favored groups, political prosecutions, and cloying self-righteousness on the part of societal elites that lecture the citizenry over how they – the elites – know so much better what is good for them.

     Autocracies are gaining strength across the globe, aided by indifference to any moral strictures. Of course, the downside of autocracy is that we the people are literally at the mercy of the autocrat, who might be benevolent, but is usually not. But if democracies no longer work and autocracies naturally frighten us because of the plethora of bad people who seize power and wield it for their own good, what then is left?

     Fortunately, the month of Nisan – the month of past and future redemption – provides us with the welcome answer, which is to prepare ourselves for the individual who will inspire, unite, and guide us to a world that is peaceful, prosperous and spiritually uplifting for all. We could benefit from Moshiach’s coming, and soon.

     Chag Kasher v’sameach to all!

Road To Redemption

It is not too late to pick up a copy of my new book, “Road to Redemption,” all about and perfect for Pesach, available at fine stores near you, from, and from

Enjoy and Chag Kasher v’sameach!