The Institute for Jewish Law Celebrates Its Fiftieth Anniversary

The Institute for Jewish Law Celebrates Its Fiftieth Anniversary


Dr. Benny Porat, the director of the Faculty’s Institute for Jewish Law, believes that this field still has much to offer. As it marks its fiftieth anniversary, the Institute is more active than ever. It sponsors two well-regarded journals, holds conferences with a unique atmosphere of their own, maintains postgraduate degree programs, and provides an extensive library for students, researchers, and legal experts. And it still has time to plan for the future.


Renana Herman


The Israel Matz Institute for Jewish Law this year celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The Institute was established in 1963 by Supreme Court Deputy President Menachem Elon z”l, and is now headed by Dr. Benny Porat. To mark the jubilee celebrations we asked Dr. Porat a few questions about the Institute.


Dr. Porat, could you tell us what the Institute for Jewish Law actually does?
This is the leading institute in its field and the only one in Israel that meets international standards. It serves as a center for research into Jewish law. A generation of leading Jewish law scholars grew up in the Institute and the most important studies were written under its auspices.


The Institute’s overriding goal, of course, was to promote research into Jewish law. It’s important to remember that the Hebrew University offered law studies before the Faculty of Law was even established. The two core legal fields on which the Faculty was based when it was established in 1949 were Jewish law and international law. Accordingly, it was only natural that the Faculty would become a flagship for research and teaching in the field of Jewish law. This is indeed what transpired, and the Institute has served as the main tool to this end.


Today the Institute is undergoing a changing of the guards. A generation of lecturers and scholars has retired or is about to retire. The last faculty member from the generation of the “founding fathers” is Professor Berachyahu Lifshitz. Nevertheless, we naturally continue to welcome the ongoing work of retired faculty members who continue to be active in the Institute. We are striving to build the new generation. I am one of those involved, and next year we will be joined by Professor David Flatto, who has moved to Israel from the US in order to join us here at the Institute. Professor Flatto will also be teaching a course and a seminar here next year. We are looking forward to welcoming him to the Institute and hope to continue to expand our ranks.


We’ve heard about the Tzova Conferences that have been held in recent years. What happens at these gatherings?
The Institute initiated the Tzova Conferences several years ago. The conferences address various aspects relating to Jewish law and are held as a cooperative venture of the Faculties of Law at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, and Bar Ilan University. These conferences differ from regular academic gatherings in two respects. The first is their demographic profile. Each conference focuses on the interface between Jewish law and another field and seeks to bring together Jewish law scholars and scholars from another field of general law. The next conference, for example, will be devoted to the subject of Jewish Law and Contract Law. We hope to bring together leading general scholars in the field and Jewish law scholars and to see what happens when they sit at one table and try to illuminate the general field with specifically Jewish law insights.


Another unique feature of the conference, as befits the field of Jewish law, is that the deliberations focus on study of the primary sources of Jewish law. A significant portion of the conference follows the Beit Midrash (“House of Study”) style: The participants sit down to study texts in small groups, including issues from the Talmud, from Maimonides, and from other Jewish law sources. Alongside frontal lectures, the conference also includes a section when the participants study and prepare for the lectures. This ensures that the participants are better prepared for the lecture and have already had a chance to form their own opinions, so that they can challenge or support particular arguments.


What other activities does the Institute provide?
We invest heavily in the field of research into Jewish law. The Institute publishes books and research projects, including two journals. The Jewish Law Yearbook is our longstanding journal and this year marked its fortieth anniversary. The Yearbook is one of the leading journals in the field of Jewish law and appears annually, which is a relatively high frequency in this field. It is devoted to the field of Jewish law in the broadest sense, including both the classical areas of this field and related areas of Jewish studies – research into the Talmud, Jewish philosophy, and history, insofar as these areas relate to Jewish law. We also strive to provide a platform for Faculty students who write outstanding papers, theses, or doctorates and to publish these works in the Yearbook. We also recently assumed responsibility for the publication of the international English-language Jewish Law Annual.


An additional field the Institute nurtures is that of postgraduate degrees in Jewish law. Two years ago we revived our master’s degree program in Jewish law, and we have been pleased to see that this is a very attractive and successful program. We currently have between 10 and 12 students in the program and we hope to expand it still further over the coming years.


The library is another important feature of the Institute. Our library houses a uniquely rich and diverse collection relating to all aspects of Halachic literature, research into Jewish law, and ancillary literature. It is the most important library in its field in Israel and is also unique on the international level. Students, researchers, and legal experts all enjoy the library’s services.


Can you share any interesting news from behind the scenes at the Institute?
This isn’t one of our most recent activities, but one of the Institute’s most important activities several decades ago was the response index project. The Jewish response constitute a tremendous literary genre whose wealth and diversity are almost unimaginable. When we began the project there was no way to grapple with the endless ocean of material in this field. Professor Menachem Elon initiated the response index project, in whose framework numerous researchers reviewed the literature item by item and classified them according to source, historical context, and legal questions. The project’s outcome appeared in several volumes that allow anyone who wishes to do so to research this literature by a given topic or source and quickly to find what they are looking for.


In an ironic twist of fate, two other researchers also embarked on a project to develop a response project at the same time. Their project, which was adopted by Bar Ilan University, followed a similar technology but employed digital media. Their project has been extremely successful. Our own project was a tremendous initiative based on a great vision, but it relied on hard human graft rather than technology. With hindsight we lost out, and the public now credits the scholars from Bar Ilan for the success of the response project.


In closing, a question that will interest many readers who do not come from the field of Jewish law. Do you believe that study of Jewish law is still relevant today, despite the fact that no legal system follows this school? Is it important to promote and develop this field?
That’s the million dollar question! I’ll try to tell you in a nutshell how I look at this issue and why I believe that Jewish law is still important. Firstly, if we examine Israeli law from the proper perspective, we will find that Jewish law has exerted a much stronger influence that most people tend to imagine. Jewish law has had a decisive impact on Israeli law, and if we removed the Jewish phrases and institutions from the latter we would be left with a partial and inadequate system. Countless phrases and terms in Israeli law are drawn from the language of Jewish law. These include the usual terms used today for unjust enrichment and for bankruptcy. Various issues in Israeli law, such as the imprisonment of debtors, have been influenced linguistically or substantively by Jewish law.

In addition, Jewish law functions as the “other.” It offers legal experts a chance to think outside the box and consider other options. These options may not always be suitable for implementation and absorption, but they are thought provoking and challenge accepted axioms and concepts. Jewish law is a friend that has accompanied Israeli law since its inception. Sometimes we listen to its advice and sometimes we reject its position – but it is always there, accompanying and adding greater depth to Israeli law.


Students in the library of the Institute for Jewish Law