Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Changing the Status Quo

Yes, I believe in Halacha. I try and follow it to the best of my ability. I also believe that all Jews are required to follow Halacha. And I further believe that in theory it would be in the best interests of the Jewish people if the Jewish State were guided by Halacha.

But the latter statement is true only in an ideal - or near ideal - world. A world where the majority of Jews living in the state were religious. As it stands now I would oppose any attempt to forcibly impose Halacha on a population where 80% of its citizens are not religious.

But that is not the view of Israel’s justice minister, Yaakov Neeman (whom some may remember as heading the Neeman Commission which dealt with conversion issues).

From an article in the Washington Post:

Yaakov Neeman, an observant Jew, told a rabbinical conference on Monday that the Bible contains "a complete solution to all the things we are dealing with."

"Step by step we will bestow religious law upon the citizens of Israel and transform religious law into the binding law of the state," he said. Israeli newspapers said the rabbis attending the conference applauded him wildly.

I would not have applauded him at all.

This is what is known as religious coercion. One cannot win any friends in the secular world by telling them that the status quo agreed upon by Ben Gurion and the Chazon Ish will eventually be abandoned and ‘step by step’ Israel will become a religious country.

This kind of rhetoric only serves to alienate the vast majority of the country – a majority without which there would be no country. You cannot shove religion down people’s throats. They will rebel. I have no doubt that there would be a massive rebellion if for example Israel slowly started closing up all of its streets to traffic on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

This doesn’t mean that Israel shouldn’t implement what it can to safeguard existing Halacha and promote its observance. Hopefully someday Israel will become a nation of observant Jews. But statements like Mr. Neeman’s can only have the opposite effect.

Secular Israelis are tired of religious coercion. When they hear ‘religious’ they see ‘Taliban’! Or Meah Shearim.

Now I’m sure Mr. Neeman did not mean he was going to turn Israel into Meah Shearim. But it is certainly understandable that secular Jews fear that might ultimately become the case. If that were the kind of religious state that would develop, I too would fear it. There is no way I would ever want to live in a state run by Jews who have been responsible for so much trouble and strife among their own people, responsible for so much of the enmity between secular and religious Jews, and responsible for so much Chilul HaShem.

But- as I said - I’m sure this is not what Mr. Neeman has in mind. He probably means that the country should be run according to basic Halacha. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that secular Jews will only see this as yet another attempt to force religion upon them. They are a populace that doesn’t want it. Most secular Jews want to continue to live their lives in the ways they are used to. They were not raised to be religious and don’t want to be.

Statements like Mr. Neeman's do not reach out. They alienate.

In any case his wish is ultimately untenable in the current religious climate of factionalism. In matters of national security who would decide? Religious Zionist rabbis who order soldiers to resist orders to evacuate illegal settlements? Charedi rabbis who in theory would give up land for peace?

Under a Charedi mandate - what would be the national policy of education? Would universities be reduced to 2nd or 3rd rate schools with much of the current curricula expunged? Will science be banned as a study - or sevely reduced? Would widely accepted theories about the origins and age of the universe be banned from study? What about art or music? Or would secular education be banned altogether past 8th grade – at least for men?

Under a Chasidic mandate - would they insist on their own severe Tznius restrictions for everyone - which they regard as basic Halacha? Will there be for example only Mehadrin buses? Will there be separate sidewalks for men and women? Will there be a government Tznius squad that will have enforcement powers?

What about matters of Gerus? Who will decide that? Charedi rabbis? Religious Zioinst rabbis? Chasidic rabbis? Sephardic rabbis?

Even if a religious state would allow each community its own Posek, what about overlapping areas where Halachic Psak might conflict? Who would decide matters that effect the whole? Who would be the country’s final Posek? I can’t imagine there would be any final agreement. In fact there would probably be just as much resistance from one segment of Orthodoxy in Israel as there is from the secular population if their rabbinic leader is not the one who has the final say.

It isn’t as simple as just implementing basic Halacha.

So as much as I believe that the nation of Israel should be guided by Halacha, I also believe that Mr. Neeman’s statement is a foolish pipe dream that will - not only not happen - but will have the effect of alienating the vast majority of its citizens to the point that it could actually threaten the very existence of the state - via a mass exodus of its secular citizens.

As things stand now, I am therefore opposed to changing the status quo. What the religious community should instead be doing is reaching out to its secular brethren and show them the beauty of living a Torah lifestyle. It is only if Israelis can be reached in a positive way that there is even a ghost of a chance of it ever becoming a Halachic state.

Postscript: I just read the Ha’aretz article where Mr. Neeman back peddles a bit and said he was misunderstood. OK. I can accept that he didn’t mean it the way it sounded. That does not change what I wrote about the idea itself: that of changing the status quo in Israel from one of balance between the secular and the religious – to one where religious law becomes the law of the land. I am opposed to it for all the reasons I stated.