In the early decades of the twentieth century, a group of Jewish legal scholars working in Eastern Europe, and later in Mandatory Palestine, sought to « revive » (i.e., modernize) Jewish law and turn it into the legal system of the Jewish community in Palestine — and later the legal system of the State of Israel. Inspired by the nationalist legal ideas of the German historical school, as well as the successful revival of the Hebrew language, the Jewish legal revival project created a body of scholarship on Jewish law, established the first Jewish law school in Mandatory Palestine, and even influenced the work of a unique communal court system that functioned in the Jewish community in Palestine until the end of British rule in that territory.
The Jewish legal revival project had an ambivalent attitude to Roman law (both ancient and modern). Modern scholarship on Roman law, especially nineteenth-century German legal scholarship, was seen as a model to be emulated by the Jewish legal revivers. Indeed, the Jewish legal revival project was often simply understood as a process of reorganization of the materials of Jewish law based on legal categories, models, and methodologies taken from modern Roman law scholarship. On the other hand, the legal revivers saw Roman law as the « other » of Jewish law, often arguing that the principles underlying the latter were utterly different from those of the former. Roman law was thus imagined and used by the early-twentieth-century Jewish law scholars discussed in this article in contradictory ways: sometimes as a legal system that should be emulated, and sometimes as a legal system whose norms and institutions should be shunned. Thus, as this article shows, Roman law, as it was described in the legal thought of the group of legal scholars I study, was used as a foil against which modern Jewish legal identity could be created.
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