Wednesday, June 06, 2007

An Earthquake in Israel

A little noticed but major event is taking shape in Israel at this moment in time. There is a draft law being proposed in Israel by the religious Zionist National Relgious Party (NRP) that will change a situation that is at one and the same time both wonderful... and terrible. Wonderful in the sense that a Jewish state defines itself by law as observant, and terrible in that it has contributed to a major rift between secular and religious Jews. It is a law that will change the so called Status Quo.

The Status Quo was an agreement reached between Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and the Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, the acknowledged leader of the Lithuanian Jewry in Israel at the time. It entailed formalizing the Jewish character of the state through an act of the Knesset maintaining the existence of the then status quo. This left religious matters in the hands of the Israeli Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. And it established the public observance of Shabbos in all stores, offices, and public transportation. They were to be shut down. It was a delicate balance between the religious and secular designed to prevent one faction over-running the other.

But many store owners just ignored the Status Quo arrangement and have kept their stores open on Shabbos. The Charedi contingent in the Knesset has over time tried to enforce it and they have met with mixed results. The most recent success was the El Al boycott.

I have never been a fan of religious coercion. I believe that to the extent that there is any large scale anti religious feelings amongst the populace in Israel... more than anywhere else in the world... it is due in part to this kind of legislation.

I understand the reason that the religious segments of Jewry (including until now the NRP) have fought so hard for to keep the Status Quo agreements in place. The argument is that Israel by definition must be a religious State. Observant legislators must do what’s necessary to see to it that Halacha is observed by Israel as a nation. What, after all, is a Jewish nation without Jewish law? If Judaism is anything it is about what the Torah tells us we must do... or not do. All true.

But the real issue is not whether... Torah law in Israel, but how. Should we use 'vinegar' or 'honey'? The vinegar approach has been tried. And though this legislation was passed almost sixty years ago, it has in my view been a dismal failure on many levels. It has not made secular Jews more religious. It has only made them more resentful and angry. One can force another person to drink vinegar, but one cannot force him to like it. And left to his own devises he will despise it and those who forced him to drink it.

Those who do the forcing, obviously think that the 'vinegar' approach is a necessary one. It is after all a 'life saving' elixir. Israel cannot exist without Torah. So they have been force feeding the country a steady diet of vinegar for almost sixty years. And they have been building enmity in the process. This new legislation will change all that.

For the first time in Israel’s history Shabbos will no longer be defined by its ritual requirements. It will instead be defined as a cultural day of rest. This means that all activity on Shabbos should be geared to leisure activity and away from work. As I understand it, this legislation will rock the very foundation of the Status Quo. In religious terms it will be the equivalent of an earthquake! No longer will stores be required to close on Shabbos! They will only be encouraged to do so.

So how can a religious group like the NRP support anything like this? The answer is: I’m not sure. There is something troubling about changing an existing definition of Shabbos which is Halachic into one which is not Halachic. But that being said, it is also understandable.

An article in Ha’aretz points out that the status quo arrangement with respect to Shabbos is completely ignored by anyone who wishes to ignore it. More now than ever. What this bill does is formalize the real status quo. This is in large part due to the influx in recent years of immigrants from places like the former Soviet Union. They are almost entirely secular. And they never ‘heard’ of the Status quo and wouldn’t care if they did. From the article:

‘The Israeli Sabbath is a sober example of the irrelevance of the so-called status quo. Some 230,000 Israelis work on Saturdays in commercial centers, which are visited by some 40 percent of the population who have an annual consumption rate of more than
NIS 5 billion.”

As would be expected Charedi leadership in
Israel remains vehemently opposed to this new law and they have strongly criticized the NRP for promoting it. I am not unsympathetic to the Charedi view. To formalize legislatively the existence of Chilul Shabbos would seem in principle to be wrong. What is gained, they might ask by doing so? People are already Mechalel Shabbos? ... why validate it?! Such legislation they might argue would increase Chilul Shabbos. Perhaps. But I’m not so sure about that since it is completely ignored anyway without consequence by any and all who choose to do so.

Maybe the opposite will happen. This new approach can over time change the feeling
by secular Jews of being coerced. The feeling of hatred can thus be reduced over time. Maybe even eliminated. This can open up doors here-to-fore closed to Kiruv. By eliminating the ‘vinegar’ we can try a new ‘honey’ approach. The net result can be that instead of increasing Chilul Shabbos, it can actually be reduced. And by making Torah Jewry more benign, it can also reduce the tension in other areas... like army exemptions for Yeshiva students.

The hatred may not turn into love over night, but at least it has a better chance of changing in that direction. If one looks at the religious/secular relationships in
Israel versus the United States it is quite easy to see the negative impact of religious coercion. And perhaps that is why the NRP has introduced this legislation.

Frankly, it may not be such a bad idea.