The recent conflict among rabbinic authorities in Israel regarding observance of the shmitta year point up some interesting contradictions. How do rabbinical authorities respond when ancient religious strictures come up against their practical consequences in the modern world? Can the rabbinical authorities find or create loopholes to alleviate the painful consequences of strict observance? Do they have the willpower or even the courage to do what is necessary? The answer, it seems, is: It depends on whether it affects them personally.
Consider the dramatically different rabbinic responses to the issues of the agunah, the woman who is trapped because she cannot obtain a get, a Jewish divorce, and the issue of shmitta, the prohibition on farming every seventh year in the Land of Israel.
An agunah, literally a "chained woman," is chained to her marriage because she cannot obtain a get from her husband and therefore she can not remarry. Historically, the agunah issue was not a major problem in the Jewish community. For the most part, it occurred in the relatively rare circumstances when a man was missing after a long period of time, usually because he had traveled far or was lost in battle. Without evidence of his death, the man might be alive and the wife could not remarry without a get. But in more modern times, the problem arose more often in the context of a husband refusing to give his wife a get because of a bitter divorce, perhaps out of revenge or to gain a financial concession. The rabbis were forced to address the question of when, or even if, they could compel the man to give a get, since a get must be given voluntarily. Even as the problem became more widespread, many rabbinic authorities were unwilling to go along with some creative solutions that would alleviate the suffering of the growing number of agunot. Just one year ago, a conference of international rabbinic authorities was scheduled in Jerusalem to discuss halachic solutions to the agunah issue. Then the conference was cancelled at the last minute after pressure from a few haredi (fervently Orthodox) rabbis who opposed the conference. Many Orthodox (but non-haredi) rabbis who had worked hard to organize the conference were disappointed that it would not take place but they did nothing. The haredi tyranny prevailed. No progress was made to free the agunot.
That was last year. This year, it was the shmitta dilemma.
According to the plain language of the Torah, every seventh year is a shmitta year. The land must be given a rest, so no farming is permitted in eretz Yisrael. While this was a non-issue for Jews in the diaspora years, it became a serious problem for the struggling Zionist pioneer farmers of the late 1800s. Clearly, shmitta observance would be an economic disaster. So the early Zionist Orthodox rabbinical authorities created the concept of the heter mechira, the license to sell. It was a legal fiction in which Jewish farmers "sold" their land to non-Jews for the shmitta year, then continued farming. Economic disaster was avoided.
But most haredi authorities did not approve of the heter mechira. In recent years, the haredim, through their political clout, gained control of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. They tried to subvert the heter mechira by allowing each local municipal rabbinic authority to decide whether to follow it. This created a dilemma in which some municipalities considered produce grown under the heter mechira to be kosher — and the stores, restaurants, and hotels that sold or used them could be deemed kosher — while other municipalities considered produce grown under the heter mechira to be non-kosher — and the stores, restaurants and hotels that sold or used them lost their kashrut certification. So this shmitta year the heter mechira was no longer universally acceptable and Jewish farms that followed the heter mechira were facing a crushing economic loss. Without universal acceptance of the heter mechira, produce had to be imported and the cost of produce in Israeli stores was going through the roof. This hit everyone in their wallets.
The challenge to the heter mechira — and the cost to Israel’s economy and to Israeli pockets — was so offensive to the Orthodox (but non-haredi) rabbis, that a large number of Orthodox rabbis from an organization called Tzohar went so far as to form an alternative Orthodox kashrut board that would issue kashrut certification to stores, restaurants, and hotels that sold or used produce grown under the heter mechira. More than that, they joined in a court action to challenge the Chief Rabbinate’s right to allow some rabbis to opt out of the heter mechira loophole. Israel’s high court ruled against the haredi Chief Rabbinate. One prominent Orthodox rabbi said of the court ruling that "haredi coercion" had been thwarted.
So we are left to ask, why could the Orthodox non-haredi rabbis marshal the will to rebel against the haredim when it came to farming and their personal pockets but they could not do the same when it came to saving thousands of agunot? Is it simply a matter of whether they have a personal stake in the outcome? To be sure, there are differences in the halachic issues involved in agunot and the heter mechira. No two sets of issues are ever identical but, let’s face it, even with halachic innovation, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The Orthodox rabbinic authorities in Israel just proved how quickly, decisively, and effectively they can unite and act — when they want to.
Barry Wadler is an attorney who lives in Fort Lee.