One of the intellectual joys here in Israel is the ubiquity of conferences on the great issues of the moment. They seem to take place somewhere every day, or at least every few days, and attract a great variety of rabbis, ministers (i.e., ministers in government, not churches), Knesset members, professors, and thinkers. One such kenes, conference, took place a few days ago, hosted by the Yeshivat Hasder of Rishon Lezion, and was entitled, “Torah va-chaim,” or “Torah and Life,” and I happily attended.
No heading could sound more generic, but the specific theme was the integration of Torah values and ideals in the general society especially in light of the presence of secular Israelis whose vision of Shabbat differs from that of the Torah world. In other words, how does a Jewish state observe Shabbat, and not just a state of Jews? To be sure, this is a debate that has been taking place for 70 years, if not 700 years, and each generation wrestles with Shabbat issues in its own way that are in some respects similar and in others dissimilar to the struggles of previous generations.
For example, most Israelis enjoy the concept of Shabbat as a day of rest and leisure, a day to pursue other aspects of life than simply the earning of money and the production of goods. That definition obviously includes Torah-observant Jews but also many non-observant of halacha. But one familiar refrain in recent years has been the claim of some that they enjoy Shabbat by “shopping,” going to the malls and just spending time there, if not also money. But how can they shop if Israeli law mandates that stores be closed on Shabbat?
This came to a legal skirmish very recently. Despite the law, some stores in Tel Aviv and elsewhere have been willing to – illegally – open on Shabbat, and pay the fines for said violation. It is an extremely cost-effective act; the fines are rare, not very high when they are imposed (which in Tel Aviv was not that often), and the income generated by sales far exceeded the fines. Other merchants sued, claiming that they were being placed at an economic disadvantage by not being open on Shabbat, but they themselves did not want to open on Shabbat – some for religious reasons but most because they simply wanted a day of rest. They did not want to be slaves to the material world, and felt that it is their right – guaranteed by the law – not to have to work seven days a week.
Concomitant with this was the growing reality that businesses that were open on Shabbat, illegally, would only hire workers who were willing to work on Shabbat and thereby openly discriminating against religious Jews and others who would not work on Shabbat. What an anomaly! In New York, New Jersey and most elsewhere in the US, no employer has the right to insist on Shabbat work, and dismissal for refusal to work on Shabbat is a human rights violation and regularly, and successfully, litigated. In Israel, no such protection exists (!) because the law itself bans Shabbat work.
Several months ago, the High Court ruled that the Shabbat laws must be enforced, that stores must remain closed, and that the fines for violation must be sufficient enough to serve as a deterrent. (Enforcement remains an issue.) But note another irony: the Court’s ruling was not based on Shabbat as a religious ideal, i.e., that Jewish law prohibits Shabbat labor. That undoubtedly would have been a losing argument in that secular body. But as the complaint was phrased in secular language – the rights of workers – the Court upheld the Shabbat laws as a cornerstone of human rights in a modern state.
Almost all the secularists on the conference panel approved of the decision, although perhaps it is unfair to label as secular those who perceive the value of Shabbat even if they observe it in a somewhat unconventional way.
The issue that kept recurring was the secular dilemma. Everyone knows what they – and other Jews – can’t do on Shabbat, but what can they do? Assuming that they are not going to the synagogue (but I have also seen well known “secular” Israelis in shul on Shabbat as well, davening like everyone else and not in attendance because of any particular event), what can they do if they can’t shop, and there is no public transportation, and cultural or entertainment venues are closed?
There has been a suggestion made in the last few years, and agreed to by a number of prominent Israelis across the societal spectrum who signed a “covenant” to permit the opening of places of entertainment and culture – theaters, museums, libraries and the like, loosening the restrictions on public transport, etc. while keeping Shabbat in the public domain or official facilities. Known in Israel as the “Gavison-Medan Covenant,” it was drafted and signed by Ruth Gavison, a law professor, and Rav Yaakov Medan, the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion, and is uniquely Israeli. People who have no official role in society – without any legislative or judicial function – came together to resolve the debate but without any real authority to do anything about it except have the media depict it as a real agreement. (Similarly, the Geneva Initiative of Yossi Beilin of more than a decade ago purported to settle the conflict in the Middle East once and for all; of course, he had no authority to agree to anything on behalf of anyone, and yet his work product is still cited approvingly by the Israeli Left.) Such is unimaginable from an American perspective.
Nonetheless, several of the rabbis participating in this conference agreed with the “covenant,” and were willing to accommodate secular Israelis’ desire for cultural events on Shabbat, with some indifferent to the desecration of Shabbat and others on condition that Shabbat violations are not blatant. Fortunately, MK Tzipi Hotoveli, the Deputy Minister of Transportation, star of the Likud, and a religious and proud Jew, rose to the occasion and, in effect, chastised the rabbis for their willingness to forego the public observance of Shabbat. She, for one, is not, as to her a Jewish state is unthinkable without public observance of Shabbat. Granted, no one wants to make private transportation unlawful on Shabbat – that awaits the Sanhedrin and the Messianic era – but she found it objectionable that she had to defend Shabbat when some liberal rabbis are ready abandon it to curry favor with their fellow liberals. That doesn’t mean women can or should be rabbis, but as we know, “The wisdom of women builds the house…” (Mishlei 14:1). Women can and often do have a greater innate sensitivity to certain Torah values than do men.
It need only be mentioned that, in the grand style of Israeli “negotiations,” all the concessions came from the traditional element, none from the secular group – except, I suppose, their agreement not to riot or file suit about the existence of any remaining restrictions, at least for the time being. For sure, these concessions, if ever implemented, will be pocketed and serve as the basis for any future covenants. That should sound eerily familiar. (Another irony is that Ruth Gavison, although nominally secular, is one of the few professors and legal elites that is a political right-winger.)
Thus one flash point will be the unfortunate opening planned in the near future of a pedestrian mall at the old railway station in Yerushalayim. Under the pretense that several people will walk around on stilts (“entertainment”), shopping stalls will be open for business. It is an obvious disgrace, surely to be litigated to an unhappy ending. And, in response to the tedious howls of “religious coercion!” if the place will be shuttered, one participant – Uzi Dayan, leading security official for years and today a fairly traditional Jew – simply noted that all laws are coercive, by definition. That is why they are “laws,” and not suggestions. I add that those who want to “coerce” Haredim into the military must surely be aware of that. Apparently, the “majority” does reserve itself the right to use religious “coercion” when it suits them; a different grouping of much the same people should not protest when such is used against them. It merely reflects the will of the majority, which, after all, is a tenet of democracy.
Three longtime olim from Ethiopia – a rabbi, a politician and a journalist – spoke about their often unhappy experiences with the Israeli religious establishment and the rest of Israeli society. (Interestingly, all the secular participants wore kippot out of respect to the place and the topic, but not the latter two Ethiopians.) All three had marvelous senses of humor and at times very compelling stories, but their indictment of Israeli society as racist and their complaints about their absorption and subsequent treatment fell flat. In classic Israeli style, they were each heckled by audience members (indeed, there is no time allotted for questions; people just yell out a question while the speaker is speaking). Here, their complaints were greeted with shouts from the audience. “Stop whining!” yelled one older oleh from Iraq, “We were given almost nothing when we came!” An immigrant from Yemen hollered: “You don’t how good you had it compared to the way we were treated!” Publicly chastised, the three Ethiopian-Jews were made to feel like full and equal members of Israeli society, which, I suppose, is also progress.
In the lexicon of the left, repeated several times here, what was most important was the “conversation,” that people are talking about these issues. Indeed, the recognition that all Jews – of whatever level of observance – have a shared destiny is itself inspiring and needs reinforcement. And as Rav David Lau, the new Chief Rabbi, concluded the proceedings, all Jews have a share in the land of Israel and nothing is more important than finding a way to live together in harmony, peace and mutual respect.
Another week, another kenes.
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 18: The Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 12: Crisis and Faith, the 1990's [audio]
- Introduction to Selichot: Old Me, New Me [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 11: Build-Up and Breakdown, the 1980's [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 10: Darkness and Light, the 1970's [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 9: Golden Opportunity - The 1960's [audio]
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- A History of Israel, Part 8: 1950's - Return and Restoration [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 7: 1940's - Devastation and Renewal [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 6: 1930's - The Gathering Storm [audio]