Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Glitch in the Charedi Coup

There is trouble brewing in the Charedi takeover of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate - a traditionally Religious Zionist entity. But it seems like this peaceful coup by Charedi rabbis over Religious Zionist rabbis is being impeded by a battle royal between two rabbinic giants – genuine Gedolim in Israel – Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Rav Ovadia Yosef. The issue is Rav Yosef’s son, Rav Avraham Yosef. He is running for a seat in the 10 member governing council of the Rabbanut – the Moetzet Harabanut Harashit.

The Moetzet is the governing body of the Israeli Rabbinate on all religious matters. It oversees and is the official authority on everything from personal status issues to kosher food supervision. If religious factions of Agudat Yisroel, Degel HeTorah, and Shas combine, they will comprise a majority of that 150 member voting body. They will then vote on the ten member governing council and Charedi Rabbanim will take control of the Israeli Rabbinate.

Charedi opposition to Rav Avraham Yosef is based on his participation and support of the Heter Mechira. This is a legalistic device which enables farmers to continue farming their land and providing produce to the Israeli consumer during the 7th year of the Shmitah cycle - which we are currently in.

Briefly - Shmitah is a biblical command (which today - according most Poskim - is observed only on a rabbinic level) to leave one’s field in Israel fallow every seventh year. We are not permitted to work the land in any way or benefit from its produce.

There is, however, a loophole.

A way to get around this Halacha is to sell the land to a non Jew. Land in Israel not owned by a Jew is not subject to the prohibitions of Shmitah. There are various Halachic questions about whether one is permitted to sell land in Israel to a non Jew. But the Rambam Paskins (Hilchos Shmitah VeYovel 4:29) that such a sale is valid. If a non Jew buys land in Israel during Shmitah, the resulting fruits - even if planted by a Jew - are not subject to the prohibitions of Shmitah.

Charedi Poskim oppose this Heter. But not all Charedi Poskim dismiss it entirely. Some do permit it in times of dire need. But even those that permit it in times of dire need do not permit it now because they hold that we are not now in such times.

An even greater objection - if I understand correctly - is that they consider the way in which the sale is done to be a complete legal fiction. They consider it not to be a valid sale at all!

If I understand correctly a Rav from the Rabbanut writes a single document that ‘sells’ all the farmland of every farm owner in Israel to an Arab. None of the farmers have any hand in it whatsoever. They all just go about their work as though nothing changed. I wonder how many of them even realize what the procedure is… how it’s done… or who represents them?

Charedi Poskim also feel that by using the Heter Mechira it undermines the entire observance of Shmitah.

Religious Zionist rabbis continue to rely on it for the most part. But this year the Rabbabut under the influence of their Charedi members has put pressure on religious purveyors of food not to use the Heter Mechira. Instead they were urged to buy produce from land owned by Non Jews.

Charedi Rabbanim cut a deal with Palestinian farmers on the West Bank to buy their produce during this Shmitah year. This is essentially where the Charedi community gets its produce.

Charedi pressure not to buy produce from Israeli farmers has created a furor among the Religious Zionists who had relied on the Heter Mechira since the earliest ays of the State. But Charedi Rabbanim who are guided Rav Elyashiv are wresting control of the Rabbanut. And this is an issue among others that they are determined to get control of. The goal is to eliminate the use of the Heter Mechira which they see as an abuse of Halacha. But the story doesn’t end there.
Rabbi Avraham Yosef supports the use of the Heter Mechira and has implemented it. As the Jerusalm Post reports:

Rabbi Avraham Yosef personally oversaw implementation of a controversial halachic ruling called "heter mechira."

Rav Elyashiv strongly opposes him for this reason. Rav Yosef of course supports his son. There seems to be an impasse. Meanwhile the Religious Zionist faction of the Rabbanut is trying to get their own candidates elected.

How will this all end? My guess is that the Charedi surge in power will not be stopped. Some sort of compromise between Rav Yosef and Rav Elyashiv will take place. Charedi Rabbanim will end up controlling the Rabbinate. What will happen to the more modern Dati community? Are they going to be eventually marginalized into oblivion? Who knows? But that sure seems like the trend.