Noah Feldman on HLS’s new Program on Jewish and Israeli Law

Inaugural director discusses program aspirations, scope

Thanks to a gift from Mitchell R. Julis ’81, HLS has established the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law, which held its inaugural event on November 8 (see video below). The program, which will host visiting scholars and fellows and feature courses and conferences, is led by Noah Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law. He spoke recently about the scope of Jewish law, his aspirations for the program, and his own background in the subject.

What is your vision for how you’d like to see the program develop?

Professor Noah Feldman

Credit: Nina Subin

I’d like us to be able to explore some of the most rich and interesting problems in Jewish legal thought and also in contemporary Israeli legal politics from a serious scholarly perspective that embraces every subject and every perspective with a kind of calm that isn’t already brought to these issues.

When you say calm, how does that contrast with the sentiment that’s typically brought to these issues?

On Jewish law, there are rich and interesting differences between Jewish denominations, and sometimes those differences can get heated. But I’m interested in studying the problems and debates from an open-minded, inclusive standpoint. So I’m interested in the progressive thought of the Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and in the middle ground of Conservative Judaism and also in traditional Orthodox Judaism and Haredi, or what’s sometimes called ultra-Orthodox Judaism, as well. I’m interested in all of these subjects and also engagements between them. So the topic of women rabbis remains an interesting and contentious one in some parts of the Jewish community while being totally accepted in other parts of the Jewish community. That’s a perfect example.  And when it comes to Israel, the Israeli legal system is inevitably enmeshed in Israeli politics and life. So dealing with questions of Israeli law, especially questions that are unique to Israel, which is really our organizing theme, inevitably touches on important and potentially controversial questions: Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; the status of law in the occupied territories Judea and Samaria; the status of the Temple Mount, which we’re going to hold a conference on in the future. These are topics that are tremendously important, deeply legal but also capable of generating the kind of controversy that produces more heat than light, and our goal is to explore all these things from a scholarly perspective in a way that lowers the temperature and enables calm, rational study and conversation.

The program is interdisciplinary. What partnerships would you like to explore?

Within the law school, we have partnerships that we’re forming with the Islamic Legal Studies Program and with our faculty who work on canon law. I’d also be interested in pursuing connections with other forms of religious law, which are very usefully studied in interaction with each other.  Outside the law school, we already work closely with the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. So we’re interested in historical perspectives, sociological perspectives, philosophical perspectives, potentially we could even be interested in economic perspectives, which I think is an important aspect of legal thought today. That’s just a smattering of the interdisciplinary connections.

How will students be involved in the program?

They should have a wide range of opportunities. There will be seminars; there will be regular intellectual events that reach out to students. Some students have already worked as researchers for the center working on research projects that are connected to Jewish law.

How will it benefit students to study Jewish law?

It’s important to remember that although we are a professional school, not everything you learn in law school is oriented primarily to your legal practice.  There is such a thing as knowledge of the law for the sake of its own interest and value, and that’s an important part of this. We already have students in our classes and seminars from a wide range of different religious backgrounds. I have Catholic students, Muslim students, Jewish students, students who’ve come from abroad and are studying in other countries. A wide range of students are interested. With respect to traditional Jewish law, for many people that’s an ongoing part of their intellectual engagement with the law and that remains a part of them in their legal careers.  When it comes to the Israel-related questions, the program should be extremely useful for those who want to practice in the Middle East, either in Israel or Arab countries, or who are interested in the peace process and in efforts to produce Middle Eastern or other peace.

What is the relationship between Jewish and Islamic law?

Those are two traditions that legally from the foundations of Islam have been pretty powerfully and deeply intertwined. Important Jewish legal figures like Moses Maimonides were knowledgeable about Islamic law and they studied Islamic law in certain respects. They were influenced by certain aspects, and in other ways they tried to distinguish Jewish law from Islamic law and they engaged in polemics against Islam. There was a very deep and complex relationship in that way. I would describe it as mutual influence and mutual distancing.

What do you see as the impact of Jewish law?

Jewish law remains a vibrant part of the lives of many Jews all over the world. And that includes for almost all Jews questions of belonging and identity. It includes marriage and that leads to the question as well of gay rights and equality for gay people, it leads to questions of transgender identity and transgender rights. For some Jews as well, traditional Jewish law also affects financial transactions if they enter into private agreements to litigate contractual or damage issues in a Jewish legal court, which many countries allow as a form of arbitration. And of course there’s also a tremendously rich historical legacy of Jewish law going back a couple of thousands of years. That’s also an important part of what we’re studying.

What sparked your own interest in Jewish law?

I was lucky enough to have a traditional Jewish legal education and continued to study Jewish legal theory and Jewish law both as an undergraduate and also during my doctoral work at Oxford in juxtaposition to Islamic law as well. So it’s always been a topic in which I’ve been interested, and I’ve published intermittently on the topic over the course of my academic life. It’s been a topic deeply engaging to me for as long as I remember and I remain deeply engaged in it. For me, it’s a set of some of the most fascinating and rich topics that one could imagine.

In addition to his work on law and religion, Noah Feldman focuses on constitutional law, and he served as senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. His most recent book is “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” His six other books include: “The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State,” “Divided By God: America’s Church-State Problem and What We Should Do About It,” and “After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy” He also pens a regular column for Bloomberg View.


On Nov. 8, the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School held its inaugural event, a series of talks and panels featuring scholars of the subject.

Featured below is video of the entire event. For additional information, visit

On Nov. 8, the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School kicked off its inaugural event with a daylong conference on Jewish and Israeli law. Dean Martha Minow kicked off the event. Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the director of The Julis-Rabinowitz Program in Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School, introduced the program and the conference’s first speaker, Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture, Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric at University of California, Berkeley. Boyarin delivered a talk on “Nomos as Torah: Is there Jewish Law?”  Christine Hayes, Robert F. and Patricia R. Weis Professor of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica at Yale University,  presented a talk on “Divining the Law: Jews and Greeks and the Search for Solid Ground.”

A Conversation on “Jewish and Democratic/Democratic and Muslim: Israel and Tunisia in Perspective” featuring Ruth Gavison, Haim H. Cohn Professor emerita of Human Rights at the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Malika Zeghal, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University, took place at Harvard Law School on Nov. 8. The discussion was part of the inaugural conference for the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at HLS. Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Director of The Julis-Rabinowitz Program in Jewish and Israeli Law at Harvard Law School, moderated the discussion.