By Breger, Marshall
Moment , Vol. 37, No. 1
Similarities between Judaism and Islam are easy to see. Both are monotheistic religions for whom the Lord is One. Both are religions based on revelation. In both, law is central, and personal and social existence is governed by a divinely ordained legal system.
There are also many obvious parallels between Judaism's legal system, known as halacha, and the Islamic legal order of sharia. Both purport to instruct us in how to attend to every aspect of one's life: one's getting up and one's going out, one's sexual practice and one's business practices. For some adherents of each, religious law also dictates political life, such as for whom to vote.
Despite this kinship, there are those in the Jewish community who would condemn Islam and sharia, arguing that, unlike Judaism, Islam is not worthy of the protections of American law.
David Yerushalmi, author of a model law banning sharia, argues that sharia differs from halacha because of its different "threat matrix." Sharia, he tells us, requires faithful Muslims to impose Islamic law on the world "violently," and its adherents should be charged with sedition against the United States. Rabbi Jon Hausman, a self-styled "warrior rabbi" from Massachusetts, tells us that in Judaism, unlike Islam, the law of the state is the law (in Aramaic, dina d'malchuta dina) so you don't have to worry about such religious "imperialism."
These commentators' understanding of both sharia and halacha is markedly defective.
1. As Hausman surely knows, the reach of dina d'makhuta dina is debated among rabbinic commentators. Some limit the application of the Jewish legal system to property issues, others extend it to apply to all secular law that does not violate Jewish law. In any case, Hausman's suggestion that halacha is a personal legal system--not relevant to civic life and politics--neglects both Jewish history and halacha itself. In Baghdad during the Middle Ages and in Poland during the time of the Council of the Four Lands, from the 16th to the 18th centuries, for instance, Jewish communities had their own courts, and Jewish law was enforced by secular authorities. And even today, thousands of Jews in both the United States and Israel look to rabbinic courts and halacha to resolve all manner of civil disputes.
While clearly some Muslims do view sharia as a hegemonic political force, the vast majority of Muslims, especially those living in the West, view sharia no differently from the way Jews view the halachic system: as an overarching guide to ordering one's life. Muslim jurists have always drawn on sharia to mandate that fellow Muslims obey the laws of the land in matters that sharia does not prohibit. In numerous instances (see Koran 5:11), Muslims are told to "honor their contracts" and so to honor the "social contract" represented by the law of the land. The Fiqh Council of North America, the leading interpreter of Islamic law in the United States, ruled as recently as September 2011 that "there is no inherent conflict between the normative values of Islam and the U. …