Interview with Dr. Yuval Sinai

On September 19th, Dr. Yuval Sinai – director of the Centre for Practical Application of Jewish Law in Israel – delivered a lecture on the history of pluralism in the Jewish legal tradition and the contemporary role of Jewish law in a multicultural society. After the lecture, sponsored by the Department of Jewish Studies and hosted by the Faculty of Law, Dr. Sinai spoke with Jewish Studies student Ricky Kreitner about the occasional tensions between Jewish law and secular law, and offered his own opinions as to how reconciliation of the two can best be achieved.

You showed the many examples in the Jewish canon of legal pluralism. But would you consider those exceptions or are they indicative of the general character of the Jewish legal tradition?

Legal pluralism is one of the central features of Jewish law. I think I illustrated it very interestingly by the way that enterprises of codification did not exist, because the Jewish people didn’t want one clear-cut situation. The Shulchan Aruch [the most authoritative Jewish legal code, written in Israel in 1563] has all different opinions, Ashkenazi and Sephardic opinions, and it’s flexible. You can find any opinion to reflect your tradition, and only because of its flexibility, because of its legal pluralism and multicultural character. This is why it was accepted.

You mentioned some 19th century Orthodox rabbis who were reluctant to incorporate Jewish law into state law because they were so intent on pluralism, and they thought that crystallizing the law in such a way would betray that commitment. Is there any continuation of that tradition today within the Orthodox community?

This is a fascinating question, and maybe I could give another lecture about that. The Haredic world – the ultra-Orthodox world – they’re more in favor of the decentralized model for incorporating Jewish law into Israel law. They traditionally want to live their lives the way they live in their community, and they’re not concerned about the state of Israel anyway – they look at that as a secular state, not a religious state. On the other hand, the religious Zionist Orthodox usually look at the institutes of Jewish law, and the great rabbis of the religious Orthodox in Israel, they look at the state and see a religious dimension for the state of Israel, and therefore it’s important that the institutions reflect Jewish law.

This was the stance of Rabbi Herzog, who was the Chief Rabbi at the establishment of the state of Israel. He was an amazing man. He had a Ph.D. in biology and he knew a lot of languages and he was a legalist as well. One of his enterprises that did not succeed so much was a book called “Constitution for Israel According to the Torah.” He focused on the problematic issues and gave valid halakhic proposals for how to solve them. For instance, what about the difference between a man and a woman? What about minorities – not to give them civil rights, that’s not problematic, but what about letting them be a prime minister or something like that? These are things he dealt with, so there are rabbis today that have the same approach. Though there is a change today in this aspect as well because a lot of the religious Orthodox in Israel are, let’s say, disappointed at the way the Supreme Court uses Jewish law only rhetorically. And they’re starting to think, “Maybe this enterprise is not practical, and maybe we should seek the community-based, sub-state model for using religious law.”

In your talk, you endorsed the secularization of halakhah, against people who criticize that. You seemed to want to reclaim that secularization as a good thing. Can you expand a bit more on what that means?

If you think that Jewish law as it is interpreted by the secular courts and the laws of Israel should be religious law, if you think that Jewish law is halakhah – this is not true. This is not true. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. I mean, life is flexible. From a religious point of view, it is a secularization of halakhah. But from the Israeli point of view, so what? This is important even if all you have is a selective view, a symbol, a dictum – something that symbolizes the Jewish law, even if it’s only the symbolic worldview, this is important as well. And don’t forget that the majority in Israel are secular. As I said, it’s difficult to separate national-cultural aspects of the law from the religious aspects, but it should be done, because you have to find the common denominator of the whole population.

In the end, you said that you favour a solution that takes Jewish law and applies it to secular law for “inspiration” and “comparison.” What does that look like practically?

Ha! You can read the 600 pages of my book [Applications of Jewish Law in the Israeli Courts: Israeli Bar Press, 2009]. How it looks practically, it’s very hard to say.

It means that judges do use Jewish law in many instances, as comparison, to be inspired, as filling a lacuna in a new case, and for speaking in the language of the defendant. That’s what they do. Practically how it is done, it is very, very difficult to say.

You taught as a visiting lecturer at McGill in 2007-2008. Now that you’re back, what did you miss most about McGill and Montreal?

Not the weather!

McGill is a very special place where the multicultural idea is not only an idea, but it exists. You can see it and feel it. Just moving in Montreal and teaching, I find it fascinating: I think a lot of students are more open-minded to hearing about Jewish law, for instance, than in the United States, where they have the confidence and are sure that their legal system is the best and say, “Don’t tell me about other legal systems.”

Here in the law school, McGill students learn both civil law and common law. So they’re open to hearing alternatives, to being exposed to something different like Jewish law. They appreciate it.

The same thing I find with the students in the Jewish Studies Department, who came from all kinds of faculties here in McGill. And the Jewish identity was something important for them, something they really wanted to hear about, and I think this is something very special about McGill.

One response to “Interview with Dr. Yuval Sinai”

  1. Judith says:

    You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation however I in finding this topic to be really one thing which I think I’d never understand.
    It sort of feels too complicated and extremely vast for me.
    I’m looking forward to your subsequent publish, I will attempt to get the hang of it!

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