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Religious and civil law

Updated Monday, 11th February 2008

Rowan Williams has kicked off a debate about sharia law - but the civil law has always found accommodation with religious rules.

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As a Cambridge resident I’ve become hardened to the presence of film crews, which arrive each winter for carols from King’s, and at other times to garner footage for assorted tv dramas and Hollywood features.

On Saturday, the city centre was the setting for a costume drama of a quite different sort, as a crowd of curious shoppers and tourists jostled with television cameras. The celebrity drawing them to the doors of Great St. Mary’s Church was Archbishop Rowan Williams, who was about to process to a nearby college as part of a memorial event for his recently deceased former teacher, Charlie Moule.

Rowan Williams

As a Judaism specialist, I’ve found Williams’ speech on religious and civil law, and the controversy it’s provoked, fascinating. Like Islam, Judaism has its own religious legal system, the halakhah, which guides and governs every aspect of life. And for years, the civil law has in various ways accommodated the needs of those Jews who wish to live a halakhic life.

In January MPs debated (and rejected) a Daylight Saving Bill. One of the objections raised was the impact it would have on Orthodox observant Jews. Rules for the timing of daily prayer would mean that in wintertime people could face a difficult choice - pray at the correct time and be late for work, or get to the office on time, but disregard a central religious obligation.

Interestingly, civil acknowledgement of religious law is not always about the ‘secular’ giving way to the ‘spiritual’. There is a halakhic principle that ‘the law of the land is law’ – that is, Jews should recognise and obey the law of the land in which they live. More specifically, when an Orthodox Jewish couple separate, they need two divorces – one civil, and the other, religious. Women cannot initiate the religious divorce, and where the husband is unwilling to do so, they become trapped or ‘chained’ wives.

Because rabbis are teachers and interpreters of the halakhah – not legislators – it is often impossible for such women to be released, although it’s universally agreed that they should be. In 2002, Parliament passed the Divorce (Religious Marriages) Act, which allows a civil judge to withhold a civil divorce until the husband has provided his wife with a religious one.

This move was much celebrated and much campaigned for. But in asking Parliament to help in this way, Orthodox Jews were also in the curious position of looking to the civil system for an answer to a problem that the divinely authoritative halakhah is seemingly unable to resolve.

Given the vagueries of press releases and the popular misconceptions surrounding sharia it seems that despite this healthy precedent of civil-religious co-existence, the present furore will continue for a few days more at least.

Some of those in Saturday’s crowd certainly were there to heckle. But the embattled Archbishop may perhaps take comfort in the knowledge that others loitered in the mistaken hope (as one whispered rumour had it) of catching sight of a new episode of Dr. Who. Rowan Williams will soon be yesterday’s celebrity.





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