Thursday, November 01, 2007

Shmita Update and the State of the Chief Rabbinate

Better late than never. A recap:

The Israeli Supreme Court told the Chief Rabbinate to shove it. The reactions are split pretty predictably. Haredim mad, everybody else pretty happy.

UTJ politicians said that the court, particularly Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, basically are being halachic ignoramuses and are putting ideology above halacha. In this, they're partially right. Justice Rubinstein is Modern Orthodox, and this ideology affects his interpretation of halacha. But only a blockhead like Moshe Gafni would say that this disqualifies Rubinstein from making a ruling:
"It is sad, but not surprising, that the author of the ruling, Justice Rubenstein, decides on Halakhic matters that are outside his purview in opposition to the opinion of professionals in the field - the member rabbis of the Chief Rabbinate Council."

As with the De Hartog case, some Haredim's view of non-Haredim is so dim that any who cross them, even other Orthodox Jews, when they cross the Haredim, are deemed Jewishly illegitimate, or in this case, illiterate.

Meir Porush also chimed in

"When we see the Supreme Court intervening once again in the affairs of the Chief Rabbinate, we should ask ourselves if the time has not come to do away with this relic of the British Mandate. After all, the Supreme Court is a result of the British rulers' decision that appeals against the High Commissioner should be heard before a court of British judges. This anachronistic body later remained even after the establishment of the State, up until this very day - while in other former British colonies that received independence, it was not preserved at all."
Remember Porush's comments. We'll return to them later.

OU spokesman Avi Shafran went into full spin mode:

This year, Israel's Chief Rabbinate declared that while it still did not oppose reliance on the heter mechira, it was, for the first time, permitting municipal rabbis in Israel's towns and cities, when issuing kashrut certifications, to decide for their localities whether to rely on that fall-back standard or opt for the original one.
From the reaction, one might think that the chief rabbis had declared an extra year of shmita rather than simply taken a pluralistic stance on religious standards. Israel's agriculture minister, Shalom Simhon, thundered a threat to forbid imports from Arab-owned land (which meet the higher shmita standard).
...Even in cities where the municipal rabbi has not granted kosher certification for heter mechira produce, nothing prevents a vendor from selling such produce (sans a Rabbinate kashrut-sticker) - which will surely be less expensive than the rabbinically-sanctioned fruits and vegetables.

Shafran is leaving out two sources of information. First, increased haredi control within the Chief Rabbinate means that it is not reflecting the plurality of views within the Orthodox spectrum of the country (to say nothing of non-Orthodox Israelis, but leave that aside). Second, by its very nature, the top-down system of giving the municipal rabbi the final say on what produce is kosher enough precludes religious Jews in the area from making their own decisions about what to buy and from whom. It's probably particularly obnoxious for Modern Orthodox residents who are used to following the state rabbinate and are now being forced to choose between their own traditions and understandings of halacha and what "the new guy" says (and this is particularly ridiculous since historically the haredim haven't CARED about the Chief Rabbinate because it wasn't kosher enough for them!) The Chief Rabbis' decision was essentially giving the go-ahead to all state rabbis in the country to impose the stricter view of shmita on everyone in their area for no other reason than that they felt like it. It is about as far from religious pluralism as you can get. Gil Student pokes a few more holes in Shafran's argument here.

A TRUE example of religious pluralism would be for the state rabbis to issue no edicts about shmita, to issue as many heter mechira licenses as people wanted, to give their communities the information, and, if pressed, their own opinions, and to let the PEOPLE decide, rather than impose their views on their flocks and by default engage in economic boycotts against non-Haredi farmers.

Another angry state rabbi opined,
"The High Court over the years has gradually chiseled away at the religious establishment's autonomy," said Arussi. "The court has intervened in cases dealing with divorce law and conversions, and now it is overruling the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of shmita. This decision is another serious blow to the Chief Rabbinate."

No, what has undermined the Chief Rabbinate is it being abused by partisan forces that want to capture its power to enforce their own points of view. Nothing prohibits people that want to be stricter than the Chief Rabbinate from doing so.

So now we come to the larger question- what's this all about? A lot of people think the shmita
issue goes to the core issues of religious Judaism in Israel: how modern is too modern, how strict too strict, and, perhaps most crucially, who gets the final say-so? Unlike in America, Israel still uses the top-down Chief Rabbinate system, which has meant that instead of people following halacha because they necessarily want to or believe in it, Jewish law is forced on people in a variety of ways (some obviously less extreme than others). That it has taken something like this to make the MOs in Israel realize that a religious monopoly isn't necessarily a good thing is refreshing, if also sad. Non-Orthodox Jews have been saying this for years. The problem with the authoritarianism inherent in the Orthodox monopoly of state Judaism was that the MOs never saw anything wrong with it until their bulls started to get gored. Now that they realize some of the flaws with the system, the question is will it serve as a catalyst to argue for greater democratization of Israeli Judaism, as some of the more liberal rabbis in Tzohar seem to imply, or is this fight going to be restricted to the two camps of Orthodoxy fighting for control over the state institution, struggling to stay on top while everyone else turns away in disgust?

Two last views, this time examining the institution itself. Haaretz points out that yet again, the Chief Rabbinate has been given a black eye. In some ways this is even worse than the personal scandals of Metzger and Amar. At least those could be blamed on men, not the office itself. But now people are seeing just how problematic it is to have so much power be placed in the hands of so few, particularly when those in charge are little more than puppets. How much longer will this go on before the people finally throw the whole rotten system out? The Jewish Week nails the problem on the head:

Bottom line, one must ask whether Israelis, the majority of whom feel alienated from and bitter toward religious life, would have a more positive attitude toward Judaism if they didn’t have to deal with a state agency that controlled matters of their personal lives, from marriage to death. And it surely doesn’t help matters when those chosen to represent the height of spiritual character and religious leadership are perceived by most Israelis as uncaring if not downright unethical.

So Meir Porush, whose father wouldn't have even recognized the Chief Rabbinate, should maybe think twice before talking about booting out the Supreme Court, or chastizing it as an anachronistic relic of Mandate times. Like it or not, Israel needs a Supreme Court. But it is becoming more and more apparent that it may not need a Chief Rabbinate.

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