February 26, 2024
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Israel’s Judicial Reform and the Meaning of Jewish Freedom

The questions of the Seder vary in their particulars but it can be argued that their ultimate aim reflects the central challenge presented to the Jewish people from the dawn of its history—freedom or servitude?

This question, with all of its individual and national dimensions, has been posed throughout the generations. Moshe posed it at the time of the Exodus and so did Eliyahu HaNavi when he faced down the false prophets of Baal.

In the modern period, this question writ large was put before the Jewish people with Israel’s establishment. As should be clear to anyone even somewhat aware of recent events that have rocked Israel over proposed judicial reform, it is a question that we have yet to definitively answer.

Indeed, each generation faces unique challenges. Our generation’s challenge is enclothed in a form appropriate to what is most vital for us to grapple with now. Ultimately, the types of entertainment, accommodations and food we will enjoy this holiday, like countless other details of our personal lives, don’t matter. This Pesach, as always, the future of our families matters. The future of our people matters. Jewish destiny matters.

That destiny is interconnected with a concept that is at the core of not only Pesach but our entire worldview, namely freedom. But what is the nature of the freedom we speak of? There are three Hebrew words for freedom, each with its own meaning: chofesh, dror and cherut.

Chofesh is the ability to do what one wishes to do, without the fear of being physically or otherwise limited. Dror (liberty) is a kindred idea linked to the Jubilee year, when slaves are freed and land reverts back to its owners.

Many Jewish scholars have noted that an entirely different type of freedom is represented by the concept of cherut. It is not a state reflecting the mere absence of coercion, it is something more meaningful.

Commenting on the Torah passage which discusses the engraving (charut) of the Two Tablets (Exodus 32:16), the Sages stated that only one who studies Torah is truly free (cherut). Lest there be any doubt about the nature of the freedom we uphold as a central Jewish value, Pesach, with its remembrance of the formative national Jewish event, is known as z’man cheruteinu—the time of our cherut.

Cherut is the freedom born of responsibility and accountability. It does not represent ostensibly free people who are in reality slaves to base desires. Cherut characterizes people who are truly free to develop their potential by virtue of their knowledge of and commitment to a higher purpose. These are the bnei chorin of the Haggadah.

While not inevitable, there is often a clash between chofesh and cherut. This contest can be said to lie at the heart of an ongoing internal struggle that has long gripped the Jewish people.

Are we to be a people like all others, or shall we dwell apart? Does Jewish independence involve bowing to the dictates of foreign governments, or does it mean a return to the faith and strength of an independence with red lines that may never be crossed?

I would suggest that it might be helpful for American Jews who are otherwise bewildered by the situation to view the need for judicial reform against this backdrop.

The Supreme Court of Israel is the spearhead of an unbridled chofesh-based approach to public policy that has plunged Israel into a multifaceted crisis. This approach is central to the Court’s progressive worldview.

It is not coincidental that a number of the Court’s most strident defenders, opponents of judicial reform, have taken unrestrained, radical chofesh-style freedom to the extreme by engaging in violence, intimidation, attempted economic sabotage, threats and other lawless behavior, including a suicidal refusal to serve in the IDF.

The recent report of a Chabad couple who were savagely attacked by an anti-reform mob on the streets of Tel Aviv is but one example. That the story was ignored by the police and buried by most of the media should tell you everything you need to know about the systemic nature of what Israeli citizens who want a truly Jewish and democratic state are facing.

Those citizens have come to view the Supreme Court as a small, disconnected group of elites who are unmoored not only from the higher calling of Jewish uniqueness but from the democratic will of the people as well.

They have reached this conclusion after decades of bitter experience with a Court whose power is unchecked. Many Israelis deem the unelected justices of the Court to have arrogated to themselves the “right” to intervene in all areas of Israeli life.

While the U.S. Supreme Court hears 100 or so cases each year, the Israeli Supreme Court hears a shocking 10,000 matters. According to the Movement for Governability and Democracy, 40% of those cases are Arab petitions against Jewish citizens.

When one considers the nearly monolithic composition of the Court with its predominantly secular and progressive justices, and the fact that it is self-selecting, it should come as no surprise why the average person holds the Court in such low regard.

The Court is not representative of society, and this is not merely due to its ideology. Mizrachi Jews comprise around half of Israel’s Jewish population, yet there have been only a small handful of Mizrachi justices from 1948 until today.

To conclude with another question, where is all of this leading? One place to which the anti-reform campaign has already led is an unprecedented foreign interference into Israeli affairs, as evidenced by the Biden administration’s brazen intervention at the behest of the Israeli opposition to reform. Without cherut, it thus seems that there is no chofesh either.

This Pesach, the attempt to undermine Israeli independence, that is to say Jewish national freedom, should serve as a warning to all of us as to where a chofesh that is not balanced by cherut will ultimately take the Jewish people. Right back into the house of bondage.


Eric Ruskin is an attorney in New Jersey and a member of the board of directors of the Israel Independence Fund.

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