Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Shmita Revolution and why it matters

Every seven years, Jews in Israel are supposed to let the land lie fallow. However, like many things the Torah says, this is not always that easy to do, and so, as in many cases, the rabbis came up with a loophole. In the late 1800s, the widely respected Lithuanian sage Yitzhak Elchanan Spector (known for, among other things, some interesting "modernist" halachic decisions, as well as quite possibly one of the coolest-looking yarmulkes around), came up with an ingenious "out"- shmita only applied to land owned by Jews. Therefore the Jews in Israel could get around the shmita by selling or leasing their land to non-Jews for the year, not unlike selling your chametz to someone during Passover. This ruling, called a heter mechira, was also backed by the head of the modern Religious Zionist movement, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook.

Personally, I find this to be another case where the fact that one has to create a justification to avoid breaking what is clearly a burdenous law should really be an indicator that one should rethink this law- if shmita is such a pain, don't reinvent it, just stop doing it. I feel similarly about eruvs, kitniyot, and, while we're at it, "selling" chametz.

That aside, though, I do admire the ingenuiousness of Spector, and understand the economic necessity of finding a shmita loophole.

In Israel, however, this has been a problem, apparently for quite a while. The Modern Orthodox like and follow Spector's way and receive sales permits from the Chief Rabbinate. The haredim, on the other hand, don't, and apparently don't think very well of the practice.

Now in theory, this doesn't have to be that big of a problem- live and let live, right? Except that the haredi leadership doesn't see it that way (has it ever?) and continues to adhere to an "our way or the high way" worldview, even when the people getting hurt are their own fellow ORTHODOX Jews! Since 2000, the haredim have been increasing pressure on the MOs to follow shmita "their way"- and, apparently dissatisfied with just arguing with them, moved on to attempting legal coercion (which itself is fairly absurd given that technically, shmita is voluntary and the Orthodox are the only ones who follow it).

The last time this came to a point was when the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (along with Rabbis Yisrael Meir Lau and Ovadia Yosef) took a public stand and said that, despite pressure from Degel HaTorah's Rabbi Elyashiv, he was still going to go ahead with issuing sales permits. In response, Bakshi-Doron and his family were threatened with excommunication and ostracism in Elyashiv's newspaper. In a meeting with the President of Israel, the 60-year-old Bakshi-Doron, prominent member of the Religious Zionist community and holder of the supposedly highest rabbinical office in the land, burst into tears. He later capitulated to Elyashiv, saving himself from becoming an outcast, but sacrificing his community's principles and beliefs to a crude and disgusting blackmail. (The fact that this incident did not spark more protests and outrage, from the MOs or from any self-respecting haredim, still boggles the mind).

Now it's all starting up again- but this time, the MOs are standing firm. Leading the charge is Benjamin Lau, nephew of the aforementioned former Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Lau the younger had an excellent essay in Haaretz a month ago in which he described the history behind the heter mechira. Unlike Kook, who went from a strict shmita follower in the Diaspora to a pragmatic proponent of the loophole upon seeing the fragile reality of Israel's agricultural and economic situation, Lau says the haredim see shmita as simply another example of a stringency that should be followed no matter what. The emphasis remains on trying to make shmita slightly more bearable for the consumer by buying imported produce from abroad, rather than thinking about what the impact of a de facto boycott of Israeli produce will be.

Only people totally oblivious to Israel's social situation could possibly issue a blanket prohibition of this permit. We, the members of Israel's Zionist community (in all its various forms), must stand firmly beside Jewish farmers in this country and not let those with narrow vested interests control major intersections in our lives. In the face of the advertisements of merchants extolling non-Jewish agricultural produce, we must formulate a policy for Israeli consumership. We must declare in the nation's schools, youth movements, synagogues and in every other possible forum that each purchase of non-Jewish agricultural produce unravels another thread in Zionism's flag.

For years, Israeli agriculture has waged a defensive war of survival. One shmita can become for many Jewish farmers here another obstacle leading to their collapse.

Although some Israeli farmers try to strictly observe shmita and do not work their lands, and although others have found ways of skirting its restrictions within the halakha's boundaries, much of Israeli agriculture still depends on the permit. We must protect them and not allow the situation to be controlled by small-minded, exploitative merchants who, for the sake of their own profits, are willing to import foreign produce that seriously undermines Israeli agriculture.

We must apply the original idea of the shmita, a year when commercial competition is suspended and we refine our qualities, to other channels relevant to most Israelis. It is neither correct nor moral to subjugate our small community of Jewish farmers to a commandment whose observance is no longer possible.

On the one hand, Lau delivers a standard defense of MO philosophy: halacha is to be respected, not skirted, but its inherent malleability should not be overlooked, particularly when a precedent already exists and there are good and humane reasons to consider leniencies. Most groundbreaking, however, is the suggestion from Lau that shmita itself, at least in its literal farming context, may in fact be outmoded, even anachronistic. And this coming from an Orthodox rabbi! How, well, refreshing.

And Lau isn't alone. A number of rabbis from the Religious Zionist Tzohar group (who apparently include a bunch of settler rabbis that ordinarily I can't stand) organized and said that, like it or not, they were going to save the Chief Rabbinate from itself.

Of course, the state institutions and their respective lackeys saw this as a threat:

Rabbi Moshe Rauchverger... said that Tzohar threatened to break the rabbinate's monopoly over religious services and open it up to Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism.

"If Tzohar starts providing kosher supervision, what is to stop Reform and Conservative from doing the same?" said Rauchverger.

What a concept! I could give a damn about kashrut, but even if the Reform movement (or other non-Orthodox movements) don't give a fig about kashrut as law, they should still be engaged in these kinds of debates and conversations. The Conservative movement's Hechsher Tzedek, for instance, is an excellent way to make non-Orthodox Jews think about exactly what "kosher" should mean to them. What makes something "fit"? Animal cruelty? Fair trade? Whatever. The point is that just as they haven't allowed the Haredim (or the Orthodox in general) to monopolize Jewish values in other areas, so too, the idea of food being sanctified through a series of actions and preparations shouldn't be abandoned wholesale. Others have pointed out that another unfortunate element of the shmita wars is that it obfuscates the larger lessons that could be learned and applied from a slightly less literal interpretation of what the practice is and should be about:
A serious religious leadership would take advantage of the shmita year to promote a modern translation of the mitzvah instead of strictly adhering to its ancient version. Thus, for example, it would have been possible to promote Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun's idea to implement a sabbatical year for all workers in the economy (not only teachers and academics), or alternative ideas such as a covenant on reducing the exploitation of natural resources by one seventh, or creating a giant fund in which one seventh of the profits of business tycoons would be contributed toward reducing economic disparities. In this way, shmita could be transformed from a despised word to one that bears tidings for all of humanity.

A shmita that isn't about letting your tomatoes turn into mush? Not on Elyashiv's watch. And really, if there's anyone that knows about Torah-true farming, it's some guy that spends all his time in his Jerusalem apartment and shteeble. (Yes, the guy's a major deal. He also looks like a bearded Count Chocula. When was the last time he even went outside?)

There are a bunch of issues going on here, of course, and the biggest one, as Lau says, is the idea of a rabbinical monopoly. There's never been a Jewish Pope and it's always been one of Judaism's biggest strengths. If the haredim want to do their thing, go nuts. But they have no more business forcing Israel's farmers to let their fruit rot on the trees than they do in stoning their cars or spraying tourists with bleach. The Chief Rabbinate's trying to cover its butt by saying it's just giving autonomy to individual rabbis in granting kosher certification to growers, markets and restaurants. This omits the fact that the ones with the autonomy (all anti-loophole) are the only ones with the authority to give out kosher certifications- meaning it's their way or the highway. So there's both an overt and subtle trickledown monopoly going on here.

The good news is that the Tzohar group seems to be succeeding, finally getting some much-needed government backing. Last week, they established their alternate shmita hechsher program in a number of Israeli cities, apparently specifically designed to counteract the areas where haredi rabbis are not allowing the leniency.

I say bravo. Despite my political disagreements with these rabbis, I have the utmost admiration for their courage to stand by their convictions. You can see why they are respected by their students and communities.

Rabbi Lau says that what is needed is bravery from the Modern Orthodox to stand up to the haredim. Even more, I think, is unity from the rest of Israeli society. This is an excellent opportunity for everyone to show the haredim that they do not own Israel, that diversity of opinion is not heresy, and that at some point, central authority must compromise with the real and everyday issues of the people. The Shmita revolution marks the first time in a long while that we have seen anyone in the Modern Orthodox (or pragmatic haredi, like Ovadia Yosef) establishment come out and say, "No. Not anymore."

The haredim are entitled to do what they want. They aren't entitled to drag the rest of the Jews along with them. And I'll admit it, I want this mindset to spread. I want to see the traditional leaderships, especially the rabbinical chains-of-command, challenged. I believe in pluralism and heterodoxy, and though I doubt I agree with most of anything else a lot of the Tzohar rabbis might say or do, I have to believe that Israel, and Jews in general, are a lot better off with a multiplicity of views and approaches than a single approach that crushes or marginalizes anyone that dares challenge it.

So congraulations to Benjamin Lau and his friends. Will they weaken the authority of the Chief Rabbinate? Will they weaken the authority of the haredim, Elyashiv in particular? Or will they just shake the movements up a little and force some people to think critically about what they believe and about the rabbinical power structure in Israel?

Whatever comes from this, I'm all for it.

Let the revolution begin.

(Not too surprisingly, Sultan Knish sees things a little differently. Take a look.)


Antigonos said...

I couldn't agree more with the concept of heter mechira, but the haredi stand will have wider implications than just one's own salad plate. Virtually all the restaurants--and hotel dining facilities--in Israel are "mehadrin" so as to be able to feed the widest range of customers. They will lose their hechsherim if they don't kowtow to the haredim.

Moreover, as during the last shmitta year, vast quantities of produce will be imported from outside Israel for the haredi market--and also from the PA, which leads to health concerns as some of it comes from fields irrigated with sewage. But at least, the haredi diarrhea that results will be kosher.

BTW, shmitta is one of those commandments applicable only to the Land; no one was a "strict follower" of shmitta in Europe.

Friar Yid said...

Bad verbiage on my part- I meant that ideologically, Kook was originally a shmita traditionalist (not that he was actually observing the commandment).

And I agree, the haredim are using economic warfare against their fellow Jews to try to force them to their POV. All the more reason to support groups like Tzohar in trying to provide viable alternatives.

Ideally, this will also help demonstrate to right-thinking Jews of all stripes just how odious the thuggish behavior coming from the Misnagid leadership truly is, in addition to waking people up to the dangers and weaknesses of the present system. Right now you have a guy outside the government, who hasn't held any government rabbinical position in decades, who basically rules over a non-Zionist population and has little to do with the state (let's not even get into how many of Elyashiv's flock do army service or are on govt. subsidies), and who barely even RECOGNIZES the authority of the Chief Rabbinate, and he's totally using his power to manipulate the system and play puppet-master (just as in Metzger's original appointment).

This is outrageous, and it's profoundly sad that the National Religious movement has been abandoning ground to people like Elyashiv for so long. Let this be their wakeup call.