Monday, March 05, 2012

Public Policy - Shabbos Desecration in Israel

One of the things that all Jews in Israel would like to see is their values respected. This includes being able to live as Jews in a Jewish country. For religious Jews this means following Halacha. It also means living in an environment that reflects those values on a daily basis. In a Halachic sense this means that Halacha should govern the daily affairs of life. And that nothing a government does should contradict that.

The ideal world for an observant Jews is one where Shabbos and Yom Tov are observed at a communal level. Things which are forbidden by Halacha ought to not take place in such a world at all. I think it is safe to say that no matter how modern the practice of one’s Judaism is – for an observant Jew such an environment is the most desirable one.

That’s why a city like Ramat Bet Shemesh is so attractive for religious Jews. Shabbos is a day that is observed by the vast majority of its residents - whether Dati Leumi or Charedi. There are no cars in the streets. No buses. Little children play in the streets without fear. The only possibility for any traffic is if there is a medical emergency where an ambulance may be needed – which is relatively rare. There are many communities like this in Israel.

But what about Tel Aviv? Should a city that is populated mostly by secular Jews be required to have these standards? Should public transportation on Shabbos be shut down just to satisfy the minority of observant Jews who live there? For religious Jews the answer might be yes. That’s because we see Shabbos as a religious imperative upon every Jew, religious or not. Israel is a Jewish State and therefore ought to abide by the very thing that makes it Jewish – Halacha.

The problem is that Israel is also a democracy - one which includes many secular Jews who do not see the State – or their Judaism in Halachic terms. They see it only in cultural terms. The government sees itself that way too. In a democracy, no Jew should be forced to violate Halacha. But neither should secular Jews be prevented from violating it if they so choose.

This is where the conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews begins. It is in fact a conflict between two principles - Religious imperatives versus democratic imperatives. Both secular and religious Jews feel that they have rights. However the rights insisted upon by religious Jews are based on religious obligations. One of them being that all must be done to preserve the sanctity of Shabbos and thereby diminish its desecration. Religious Jews also have an obligation via the concept of Arvus - a responsibility toward fellow Jews - to do whatever we can to prevent our brothers and sisters from violating Halacha.

This is a sure prescription for conflict in Israel. And conflict between these two segments is what we often get. Sometimes very acrimonious conflict.

I believe that it is in part because of the potential for conflict the status quo agreement was made in 1947 just before the establishment of the State. The Agudat Israel Party representing religious interests and David Ben Gurion representing the secular majority living in what was about to become the State of Israel - agreed upon a compromise that would give religious Jews what they needed and would prevent the imposition of any future additional restrictions. The agreement included (from Wikipedia):

The Chief Rabbinate has authority over kashrut, shabbat, Jewish burial and personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce, and conversions.

Streets in
Haredi neighborhoods are closed to traffic on the Jewish Sabbath.

There is no
public transport on the Jewish Sabbath, and most businesses are closed.

However, there is public transport in
Haifa, since Haifa had a large Arab population at the time of the British Mandate.

Restaurants who wish to advertise themselves as
kosher must be certified by the Chief Rabbinate.

Importation of non-kosher foods is prohibited.

Back to Tel Aviv. The mayor in Tel Aviv has endorsed a city council proposal to open up public transportation on Shabbos in that city. This would violate that status quo agreement. And that has created a firestorm of resistance, including a very public protest by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau (now Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv). To his credit his protest was expressed as pain rather then anger. (Quite to the opposite was the angry response of a Charedi Keneset member who called the decision - debased!)

From the perspective of a religious Jew - this is an intolerable breach. I therefore completely understand Rav Lau and sympathize with his perspective. But is it fair to insist on imposing hardships on secular Jews even if was part of a 64 year old agreement between two factions with opposing interests?

One might answer that fair has nothing to do with it. How secular Jews view Halacha has nothing to do with their obligation as Jews to follow it. It may not be fair from their perspective, but from the perspective of a religious Jew it is our obligation to minimize violation of Halacha whenever possible. If insisting upon maintaining the status quo is within our power we have to do it despite the animosity and resentment it generates.

Ultimately however - I have to wonder about the wisdom of forcing religion down people’s throats. Yes it’s nice to have a more religious atmosphere on Shabbos for the religious Jews of Tel Aviv. And an agreement does exist. But are we really preventing Chilul Shabbos? I tend to think that people will find their way to the beach on Shabbos anyway - using other non permitted modes of transportation. Like driving there. Instead of creating an atmosphere of tolerance that would open up avenues for outreach we are closing off any possibility of it.

Secular Jews view the current climate in Israel as a religious tyranny. Everywhere they turn they see religious Jews behaving badly in the name of religion - trying to raise religious standards to their own stictures and enforcing them wherever they live. And now a city that is almost entirely secular has an opportunity to make their lives a bit easier by having public transportation made available for them on Shabbos, they are again being slam dunked by religion. This is how they see it.

Religious Jews are always asking the secular government and society at large to respect their religious needs. And yet that respect is not reciprocated. We do not recognize the hardships sometimes imposed upon others by our religious demands. This idea was beautifully expressed by a religious women in an article on Ynet:

Given the fact that most of my life is spent with people who are not religious, I often encounter conflicts that feature a clash between my point of view and others' views. For example, on the issue of kashrut. On various occasions I was invited in the framework of my job to eat at a restaurant with colleagues. It was clear that because of my presence, everyone will be going to a kosher restaurant…

To me, as a "professional religious woman," it was obvious that 30 people would agree to eat at a kosher restaurant for the sake of spending time with one woman, yet does this really show consideration? Or is it in fact a case where I, a minority, coerce 30 people who would be forced to compromise on the food they dreamed of? The entire team will have to forego the pleasure of shrimp for the sake of respecting me? Suddenly I realized that it is in fact I who cannot show consideration for them.

The “epiphany” this woman had should not be lost on us. There has to be respect on both sides of the aisle if we are to get along. Even if we insist on maintaining a status quo agreement that involves protecting the sanctity of Shabbos, we have an obligation to understand what we are asking a secular family to sacrifice on our behalf. Secular Jews who through no fault of their own - were not raised to be observant.

These are hard working decent people who simply want to take the one day a week they are given off from work and spend it on a family outing whereby public transportation would be of tremendous benefit to them. The religious world says “No” to them. We will not provide any for your family. If you want to violate Shabbos - you will have to do it on your own. We will not allow the Jewish State to violate Shabbos for you.

Now I am not necessarily saying that we shouldn’t insist that the government keep its end of the status quo deal. But instead of the anger, stridency, and righteous indignation that usually goes along with fighting this kind of thing - it would go a long way toward creating a more pleasant and tolerant atmosphere if we at least understood why a secular Jews are so upset with us. It is not that they are anti religious. They just want to live their lives without religion being shoved down their throats.