Technical foul

Technical foul

In Israel, a group of Religionist Zionist rabbis want to break the stranglehold the Chief Rabbinate exercises over kashrut certification.

The issue that brought them to this point involves the sabbatical year — sh’nat sh’mita — that began at Rosh HaShanah.

That the land be given its sabbath of rest every seventh year is derived from two positive Torah commandments and four negative ones. (See Exodus ‘3:11 and Leviticus ‘5:4-5.)

That the Torah takes this demand very seriously can be seen in the blessings and curses section of Leviticus ‘6. After warning that Israel will be scattered among the nations if it fails to heed God’s laws, it adds, "Then shall the land rest and make up for its sabbath years. Throughout the time that it is desolate, it shall observe the rest that it did not observe … while you were dwelling upon it." (See verses 34 and 35.)

This should also make clear (but apparently does not) something else about the sabbatical year: If, in a section that talks about how Israel will sin so greatly that it will deserve exile and worse, God highlights the fact that Israel will find ways around giving the land its rest, then God is not interested in how clever we can be in finding those ways. Sh’mita is immutable.

That its observance creates an economic hardship is a given, but that hardship does not outweigh the need of the land for its sabbath. There are six years to plan for the seventh; find a way, the Torah declares, to ameliorate the suffering, but do not deny the land its rest.

The land, of course, eventually got its rest, just as Leviticus ‘6 said it would. The Jews were in exile and the land lay fallow for well over a millennium. In the early 1880s, however, Jews were again working the land and a sh’mita year (1889) was approaching. In order to alleviate the hardship the sabbatical year would impose on these new and otherwise heavily burdened Jewish farmers, Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector of Kovno, backed by three colleagues, created an extra-legal device called a heter mechirah. It permitted the Jewish farmer to "sell" his land to a Muslim for a period of two years, during which the sabbatical year will fall. Because the Jewish farmer would be working "Muslim land," the biblical restrictions did not apply. Spector, however, made his ruling a one-time-only solution, specifying that a new dispensation would have to be obtained for 1896. (None was, to my knowledge; the farmers merely relied on the 1889 ruling. This was the case, as well, in 1903.)

In 1910, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook decided to make the heter mechirah a permanent source of relief for the farmers, but he was successfully opposed by rabbis on his right. Eleven years later, though, Kook became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. From that point to this, the heter mechirah has been part of the Chief Rabbinate’s arsenal of relief measures.

It still is — on paper. In practice, however, the current Chief Rabbinate prefers the stricter haredi approach that prohibits any produce grown by Jews in the land of Israel to be sold for Jewish consumption. Any kosher establishment that violates this ruling automatically loses its kashrut certification.

This has stirred the Religious Zionist rabbis to act.

"We must put an end to the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher supervision, because it no longer performs its primary function — providing halachic solutions for the entire Jewish people," one such rabbi, Binyamin Tzvi Lau, was quoted as saying. What makes his comments most intriguing is that Lau’s father, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, is a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

As much as I agree with Lau’s sentiment regarding breaking the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly, however, I cannot agree with his willingness to rely on the heter mechirah. It is a legal fiction designed to get around a law the Torah clearly wants enforced.

At the same time, I find the position of the haredi rabbis and the Chief Rabbinate to be repugnant. For them, this is not about principle. It is about politics and, perhaps, about business, as well, since haredim this summer locked up many tons of fruits and vegetables from Arab farmers on the west bank and in Gaza.

Jewish law is filled with legal fictions (and those of us who are observant live somewhat easier lives because of it). Many of these circumventions, as much as they make our observances easier, make a mockery of the laws we are observing. This point is best exemplified by "modesty." Consider:

Women should wear long-sleeved clothing and full skirts, and they should keep their hair covered. Why? "Said Rabbi Yitzchak: Four inches or so [of bare skin exposed] by a woman is lewdness…. Rav Sheshet said: A woman’s hair [uncovered] is lewdness." Both were apparently referring to married woman and the point was that women’s bodies can be sexually alluring to men other than their husbands and even their hair can have that effect. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate ‘4a.)

Long-sleeved full-skirted dresses that are also form-hugging fulfill the requirement not to expose any skin, but otherwise leave very little to the imagination. Expensive wigs fulfill the requirement to keep heads covered, but otherwise display hair-dos often far more attractive —and, yes, sexier — than one’s natural hair.

Here are some other examples:

Putting a teabag into a glass cup and pouring hot water over it seems an innocent enough activity, but on Shabbat it violates the law against cooking. If you want tea, therefore, pour the hot water into the glass cup and then insert the teabag.

It is not permissible to own any chametz during Pesach — unless you "sell" your home and all its contents to a non-Jew who conveniently will decide against the purchase right after Pesach ends.

And then there is the eruv. A simple piece of string can turn a public thoroughfare into a private domain.

These are at times laughable technicalities created to get around observance of inconvenient laws, yet the haredim support them all. The heter mechirah is a humanitarian device meant to alleviate potential suffering among a group of people who work very hard to put food on our tables. This the haredi rabbis callously toss aside, with a supportive nod from the Chief Rabbinate.

I sympathize with the Israeli farmer, but I also believe that affording the land its sabbath is the price one must pay for being an Israeli farmer. Although I disagree with the validity of a heter mechirah, however, I find myself rooting for the Religious Zionist rabbis. It is time the Chief Rabbinate realized that it is there to serve "the entire Jewish people," in Lau’s words, and in ways at least as profound as kashrut.