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The Center for Religion, Nation and State Human Rights and Judaism Exposing the common ground between Jewish tradition and the liberal doctrine of human rights

Project Heads:
Prof. Yedidia Stern, Prof. Hanoch Dagan, Prof. Shahar Lifshitz


The State of Israel is defined as a "Jewish and democratic" state. What is the significance of this dual definition? Is there a conflict between these two components of Israeli identity? If so, can it be resolved? These questions underlie Israel's social, cultural, religious, and political agenda, and touch upon the individual existence of the Jewish people and the national existence of the State of Israel, in this generation and in the future.

IDI's Human Rights and Judaism project is a new research project designed to probe these questions. This program explores the existing and potential relationships between the Jewish tradition, in all of its forms (national, religious, and cultural) in the past and present, and the doctrine of human-rights, in its broadest sense. It aims to expose the points of conflict and potential points of agreement between these two approaches and explores the possibility of enriching the dialogue between the intellectual, experiential, and practical worlds that they represent. To this end, the project has two areas of focus: developing a body of research with the help of leading intellectuals in the humanities, social sciences, Judaism, and law, and training an elite cadre of scholars who will devote their energies to this topic in the future.

The Human Rights and Judaism project is supported in part by:
An anonymous donor operating in Israel and
The Ruderman Family Foundation


The Jewish and democratic State of Israel is characterized by tension between the universalistic principles underlying its democratic character and the particularistic concerns inherent in its definition as a Jewish State. Many critics see an irresolvable contradiction between Israel's twin identities, and increasingly call for the adoption of one definition or the other. These critics believe that Israel must either abandon its pretense of democracy and erect an authoritarian state of the Jews, or abolish the Jewish character of the state and reinvent itself as a multi-ethnic, supra-national democracy – a post-modern "state of its citizens." Either alternative would carry serious consequences for the future of Israel and of the Jewish people.

IDI's Human Rights and Judaism Project is designed to produce the ideological mortar that will enable the intellectual leadership of this generation to foster a strong sense of solidarity with Israel as both a vibrant democracy and the national homeland of the Jewish people, before Israel loses either its Jewish or its democratic character.

The project will achieve this goal by pioneering the development of a new field of intellectual inquiry, which will focus on "Human Rights in the Jewish Tradition." The doctrine of human rights is commonly seen as standing in opposition to religious thought in general and to Jewish tradition in particular. Secular liberals often see Jewish tradition as a threat to democratic values and to the doctrine of human rights, while religious Jews often view discourse of human rights as an alien import that threatens Jewish values.

IDI's Human Rights in Judaism Project will bridge this gap by engaging in a rigorous re-reading of the Jewish tradition. The project will uncover the Jewish roots of the modern doctrine of the universal rights of man, and will reveal the common ground between the Jewish tradition and liberal thought. This will pave the way for reconciling the "Jewish" and "democratic" building blocks of the Israeli polity.

Under the guidance of Prof. Yedidia Stern, Prof. Shahar Lifshitz, and Prof. Hanoch Dagan, the project will assess what Judaism, in its broadest sense, has to say about fundamental liberal rights such as liberty, dignity, welfare,  equality, and freedom of expression. At the same time, it will examine the unique set of rights and obligations offered by the Jewish worldview, and will explore their relevance to sovereign life in the Jewish nation-state. This two-way approach will expose areas of overlap and consensus between important parts of the liberal and Jewish lexicons, and will highlight areas of divergence between the two traditions in a way that will enable each to be informed and enriched by the other.


In order to meet the project's goals, IDI has assembled a team of dedicated instructors and has established a fellowship program for outstanding researchers at the early stages of their academic careers who are interested in exploring matters pertinent to Human Rights and Judaism. Participants in the three-year program, who receive a generous annual stipend, devote themselves fulltime to their doctoral studies and spend one day a week at IDI, participate in an innovative research program on Human Rights and Judaism that is comprised of professional training, seminars, national and international conferences, and publication of research.

To date, the Human Rights and Judaism has recruited three groups of six young scholars each who began their three-year training programs  in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and is currently seeking applicants for the program that will begin in October 2014. For details about the terms of the program, click here.

Meet the young scholars of 2011-2012
Meet the young scholars of 2012-2013
Meet the young scholars of 2013-2014
Meet the young scholars of 2014-2015



Should Israel’s nature as a "Jewish state" impact how we relate to individuals with disabilities? Human Rights and Judaism in Action is a sub-project of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism that explores this question in depth. To find out more about this sub-project, entitled Human Rights and Judaism in Action, click here.


Religion plays an evasive role in human rights discourse. On the one hand, historically, human rights discourse often developed on a religious platform, in many cases employing language, concepts, and claims that were essentially religious. As a result, religious values, such as the concept of creation in the image of God, play an important role in liberal, secular thinking and in human rights discourse, and different religions include a wide range of human rights values as well. On the other hand, in many religions, both the content of the belief system (i.e., its unique values and the norms that it chose to adopt) and the way in which religion is organized (i.e., the political and social institutions that transmit beliefs and rituals) are perceived as a significant threat to the liberal identity of countries and the human rights of individuals who live in them.

A product of the first international conference of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism project, Religion in Human Rights Discourse, which will be published in 2014, grapples with some of the universal challenges that emerge from this complex relationship, utilizing the Israeli reality (in some of the chapters) as a particularly fascinating test case. The book proposes a comprehensive, pluralistic perspective on the reciprocal relationship between human rights and Judaism in particular, and religion in general, and serves as a platform for spirited dialogue between these two worlds.



This two-volume set by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes deals with basic issues of human dignity and human rights as they appear in classical Jewish sources, from the Bible and its commentaries through the Talmud and the philosophical and halakhic literature, and up to contemporary halakhic and public issues. This study probes the tensions found in the tradition between clashing rights and obligations, including the tension between the rights of individuals and the needs of the public. The overall picture that emerges from it is that the fundamental principles of human dignity, equality, and freedom are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

The first volume of this publishing project, which focuses on the dialectic between the "image of God" and the concept of "a holy nation," was published in 2013. Find out more about it here.



The discourse on the conflict between human rights and Judaism is one aspect of the broader tension between universal values and particular values and culture (in this case, Jewish values and culture). As part of the Human Rights and Judaism project, a group of experts is putting together a reader of fundamental texts on various aspects of the tension between the universal and the particular. This volume will reflect multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, intergenerational, and pluralistic thinking and will serve as a point of departure for future discussions about various facets of this tension. Prof. Avi Sagi of Bar-Ilan University and the Hartman Institute is leading this project.



The right to divorce is an expression of every man and woman’s right to be free and of the autonomy of the individual to choose to terminate a relationship that he or she is no longer interested in. Jewish law, in contrast, sets limits on the right to divorce. At first glance, these limitations severely infringe the freedom of individuals—especially women—who wish to divorce their partner.

This study by Prof. Avishalom Westreich explores whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between the human right to divorce and the halakhic concept of divorce. It demonstrates that some currents within the halakhic concept of divorce—which is not monolithic—can coexist with moderate and liberal approaches. Accordingly, the study asserts that there is not necessarily a clash between Judaism and human-rights discourse regarding the right to divorce; rather, it is possible to strike a certain balance between the two.


Advisory Council Co-Chairs:

  • Justice Aharon Barak, President Emeritus of Israel’s Supreme Court; Faculty of Law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya
  • Justice Meir Shamgar, President Emeritus of Israel’s Supreme Court

Advisory Council Members:

  • Professor Gabriella Blum, Harvard Law School
  • Professor Ya’akov Blidstein, Ben-Gurion University, Faculty of Jewish Philosophy
  • Dr. Arye Carmon, Founding President of the Israel Democracy Institute
  • Rabbi Shlomo Dichovsky, Director of the Israeli Rabbinical Court and former dayyan (judge) of the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem
  • Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel
  • Professor Ruth Gavison, Founding President of Metzilah; Faculty of Law, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Rabbi Avi Gisser, Chief Rabbi of Ofra; Head of the Institute for Halacha and Law; Chairman of the Counsel for National-Religious Education in Israel
  • Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, Vice-President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute; Faculty of Law, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
  • Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv; former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel
  • Professor Fania Oz-Salzberger, School of History, University of Haifa; Chair of Israel Studies Department, Monash University, Australia
  • Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, Director of the Institute of Advanced Torah Studies, Bar-Ilan University
  • Professor Suzanne Last-Stone, Director of the Center for Jewish Law and Contemporary Civilization, Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University
  • Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern
    Project Head
    Read More
  • Prof. Hanoch Dagan Prof. Hanoch Dagan
    Project Head
    Read More
  • Prof. Shahar Lifshitz Prof. Shahar Lifshitz
    Project Head
    Read More
  • Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau Rabbi Dr. Benjamin (Benny) Lau
  • no image Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes
  • Dr. Benny Porat Dr. Benny Porat
    Read More
  • no image Prof. Avi Sagi
  • no image Prof. Avishalom Westreich
  • no image Dr. Adi Libson
    Research Staff
  • no image Adv. Adar Cohen
  • Pursuing Justice: Society and Economy in Jewish Sources

    Year: 2016
    Editor: Hanoch Dagan,, Benny Porat,

    In Jewish sources, the Torah, the Talmudic sages, and halakhic decisors enacted many complex laws related to social justice. However, when it comes to socioeconomic theory, a systematic Jewish philosophy of distributive justice never emerged. Pursuing Justice explores the foundations of the socioeconomic theory (or theories) that are revealed in a wide range of Jewish writings with different perspectives.

    Find out More
  • Freedom of Religion and Freedom from Religion

    A Democratic Perspective

    Year: 2015
    Author: Avihay Dorfman,

    The relations between religion and state raise fascinating questions about the nature of the state, religion, and the shared lives of citizens in a free and pluralistic society. This volume examines this ambivalent relationship and explores why religion warrants special treatment in the Western constitutional tradition and what counts as a "religion" for the purposes of constitutional law.

    Find out More
  • The Community’s Responsibility to Provide Handicapped Accessibility to the Synagogue

    Year: 2015
    Author: Yehudah Zoldan

    A contemporary responsum by Rabbi Yehuda Zolden that explores the community's responsibility to enable people with physical handicaps to attend synagogue services. It concludes that it is permissible to obligate members of a synagogue to finance accommodations that will make the synagogue accessible to regular worshipers in the synagogue who have disabilities.

    Find out More
  • Blessings and Disabilities: Can a Woman Bless on Behalf of Her Husband?

    Year: 2015
    Author: Michal Tikochinsky

    A responsum that deals with an issue that affects many families who are caring for elderly parents: Can a woman recite blessings or perform a religious action on behalf of her impaired husband or father even if she does not share the same religious obligation? Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky presents general principles that can be applied to other situations.

    Find out More
  • Handicapped Accessibility and the Mikveh

    Year: 2014
    Author: Michal Tikochinsky

    A contemporary responsum that offers real-world solutions that can protect the dignity and privacy of women with disabilities who seek to immerse in a Jewish ritual bath.

    Find out More
  • Physical Contact between Parents and Adopted Children in Jewish Law

    Year: 2014
    Author: Shay Piron

    A booklet that addresses the halakhic aspects of physical contact between parents and their non-biological children. Can physical expressions such as hugging or stroking be seen as a type of emotional therapy that would be permitted by Jewish law?

    Find out More
  • No-Fault Divorce in the Jewish Tradition

    Year: 2014
    Author: Avishalom Westreich,

    An examination of the right to divorce as found in Jewish law and tradition, which analyzes the halakhic tools that allow this right to exercised and the halakhic principles that shape it.

    Find out More
  • Religion and the Discourse of Human Rights

    Year: 2014
    Editor: Hanoch Dagan,, Shahar Lifshitz,, Yedidia Z. Stern,

    A groundbreaking anthology that explores the complex relationship between religious traditions and the liberal doctrine of human rights that uses Israel as a test case and examines the interaction between religion and human rights from various angles.

    Find out More
  • Judaism and Human Rights

    The Dialectic between “Image of God” and “Holy Nation”

    Year: 2013
    Author: Yehuda Brandes,

    A book by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes that explores the dialectical tension between the universal value of creation in the divine image and the particularistic value of the Jewish people as a holy nation—a tension within Judaism that is at heart of the apparent clash between Jewish and liberal values and at the core of contemporary discourse on Jewish and Israeli identity.

    Find out More
  • Access of People with Guide Dogs to the Western Wall Prayer Plaza

    Human Rights Responsa, March 2013

    Year: 2013
    Author: Benjamin (Benny) Lau,

    A contemporary rabbinic responsum by Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, head of IDI's Human Rights and Judaism in Action project.

    Find out More
  • Human Rights, Jewish Law, and Humankind

    Year: 2012
    Author: Avishalom Westreich
    Supervisor: Shahar Lifshitz,, Yedidia Z. Stern,

    This book deals with the interactions between Judaism— specifically, Jewish Law—and human rights, and explores the values common to both of them. It proposes a theoretical model for analyzing the relations between human rights discourse and Judaism. The extent of the implementation of this model and the weight of the values within it varies from time to time, place to place, and thinker to thinker. The common denominator, however, is quite broad and valuable, and opens a window onto a topic in need of exposure and to the firm establishment of dialogue between these two systems.

    Find out More
  • The Status of Minorities in the Jewish State:

    Halakhic Aspects

    Year: 2010
    Author: Eliezer Hadad,

    This study identifies two approaches to the status of the ger toshav – the non-Jew living among Israel – found in classical halakhic literature. According to one view, the granting of rights to non-Jewish minorities is conditional, and depends on their partial assimilation into the Jewish people and forfeiting of their unique national identities. According to the other view, the ger toshav may keep his national identity, but his status is not given a formal basis in law.

    Find out More

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