Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hametz as a Civil Liberty

There was a recent court decision in Israel to allow the open sale of hametz, or leavened bread products, during the 8-week holiday of Passover. Some people are understandably angry about this:

According to MK Zevulun Orlev (NU/NRP), who was next to address the plenum, "the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public wishes to adhere to the Jewish tradition not only personally but publicly and nationally."

"If only we had no need for a law - that should have been the ideal situation, just like we do not need a Yom Kippur law, a Brit Mila law, and just like there is no law mandating the consumption of matza on Pessah," Orlev said. "The Hametz Law was enacted because people - maybe they were a minority, especially in the Tel Aviv area - were scornful, did not show sensitivity, and served hametz in public."

To which the obvious answer should be- SO WHAT? This is the price of living in a democracy. Yes, even those secular bastards in Tel Aviv are entitled to do as they please.

The Haredi Shas party has responded to this by not only threatening to quit the government (something that is irritating some right-wingers, interestingly enough, as it shows just where Shas' priorities are), but also by promising its constituents that it will work extra-hard to make sure to "sweep out" any pesky civil liberty loopholes out by next year.
Shas leader Eli Yishai on Tuesday announced that by 2009 it will be impossible to sell chametz, speaking only hours after the Attorney General ruled the state will not appeal a Jerusalem court's controversial decision to allow the sale of the foods by certain businesses during the Jewish holiday.

"The People of Israel can relax, by next year it be impossible to sell chametz," said Eli Yishai, who is Employment, Trade and Industry Minister as well as heading the ultra-Orthodox party.
Well I'm sure this is helping someone sleep easier. Presumably, someone with way too much time on his hands.

Proponents of the Hametz law are basically taking three approaches. The first, in what is unfortunately becoming all too common, is threatening violence. Because, of course, at this time of great joy, remembrance, and Jewish unity, the best way to show all us sinners the errors of our ways is to burn garbage cans and throw rocks. (One Reform rabbi is trying to spin this positively; I'll wait and see what happens to the businesses that refuse the polite letter.)

The second is to bemoan the good old days when the quasi-Marxist elites of Israel still enforced a status-quo which didn't challenge the religious mores as overtly as they do now. Rabbi Berel Wein leads the way:
There were certain norms of respect that once governed Israeli society, even though that society was perhaps even more secular in lack of observance and in its anti-religious ideology than it is today.

Marxism was a powerful influence in the Jewish world then as was its attendant atheism. Nevertheless the general consensus was a modicum of respect towards traditional Jewish norms that prevailed.

Maybe it was nostalgia or just good hardheaded common sense that the climate in the country reflected a Yom Kippur without traffic, Pesach without public displays of chametz, and Tisha B’Av without restaurants being open for business.

Such was the climate of the times – not one of religious observance but rather one of respect for Jewish history and tradition and for the great section of Israeli society who held these concepts and observances dear.

But the estrangement of Israeli society to this type of public climate has been taking place gradually over the past few decades. Respect for tradition and knowledge of the Jewish past are certainly not emphasized and in many cases not even taught in the Israeli public educational system.

Religious Jews are demonized, albeit subtly but nevertheless constantly, in the main media channels. Sensitivities to neighbors and fellow citizens have become non-existent. Public Shabbat desecration abounds and no one takes into account the damage - spiritual, social, and generational that springs from this.

The climate has changed – no respect for tradition or our past or for the sensitivities of a large and ever growing section of Israeli society is present.

So it is not the individual issue of a public display chametz on Pesach that is so hurtful. It is rather the indication of how severely the climate regarding Jewish tradition has changed. There are many Jews who are not observant but who nevertheless respect the prohibition of chametz on Pesach.

What R. Wein forgets is that much of this status-quo had less to do with ACTUAL respect for Orthodox traditions and customs and more to do with patronizing and courting political support. Much of Israel's old guard were die-hard secularists who were downright antagonistic to religion precisely because of experiences back in the old country, and were either first or second generation departees from Orthodoxy.

Furthermore, there is no reason why my respect of someone else's method of observing a holiday demands driving hametz underground. I can respect what YOU do without doing it myself, or requiring that a third party be forced to go along with what we're both doing (will we mandate seder attendance next?). Same for Shabbat observance- you're in shul all day, what do you care what I'm doing? And why should respect always flow one way- you have religious MKs calling this decision "liberal terrorism." What about respecting the right to civil disagreement, or personal freedom? It's the religious parties who want to legislate behavior here, not the other way around. You can't legislate respect.

The third is just to be pissy:

This week every radio talk show in Israel and every newpaper discussed the “hametz” law. I was surprised no one made a point that I often make when there is a charge of religious coercion: In Switzerland it is against the law to wash your car or hang laundry on Sunday. You get fined! But how come no one calls that ‘religious coercion” ?

Maybe if anyone gave a crap about Switzerland...

And pissier:

Anything to show America and Europe that they are like “everyone else” and disregard religion, because it is “archaic and out of date”, they are more “enlightened and know better”. This is probably the furthest the “High Court” has gotten as far as Torah is concerned. Now we know where we are headed….

And even-pissier:
Israel is a Jewish nation. If someone wants to eat Chametz on Pesach or purchase Pork they should chose a different place to live. If they are living in Israel, they need to respect the laws, culture and tradition of the nation.

I am sure there will be large demonstrations in front of any business selling Chometz, and I am sure that those businesses will be boycotted completely. But, all we need, really is one person standing outside these establishments on Hol Homoed with a cell-phone camera to photograph every person going in and out. Then, those photos should be posted on the internet, the patrons should be identified, and if any of the patrons of these establishments are in the process of conversion, or if they have come to Israel under the Law of Return, the should have their citizenship and/or conversion immediately revoked.

They must be cut off from the Jewish people.
Hey genius, maybe some people want to live in a different kind of Israel, one that doesn't mandate that everybody follow theocratic laws. Israel was built on the backs of its pioneers, religious AND secular. Come on, you're talking about photographing people eating BREAD like they were walking into freaking whorehouses and trying to get them deported. It's not crack, it's freaking BREAD!!

I'm sorry guys, you live in a democracy. People have the right to eat whatever they want. If you want them to not be jackasses about it, try asking them nicely instead of insulting or threatening them. And before you chalk this all up to me being a heretic and all, here are a bunch of more religious folks (relative to me, anyway) who agree with me.

R. David Hartman:

One is caught in this dilemma. I can appreciate the aversion people have for legislating religious principles. I appreciate the feeling of some that the government should not enter into your own private spiritual domain and dictate to you what you can and cannot eat on Pesach. Freedom of religion or non-religion is an option that should be decided by the individual and not by the legislative power of the Knesset.

On the other hand, if we are interested in some shared, collective space that mediates some flavor of Jewishness and gives a Jewish quality to our public life, then it is the role of the Knesset to establish the minimum conditions that would give expression to our Jewish historical heritage.

Should Jewishness be legislated or should it be the result of a personal freedom of choice?

Friend of the blog Antigonos, who, questionable culinary taste aside, makes some excellent points about personal freedom:

...the head of one of the most religious political parties has now declared that he intends to seek a law forbidding the sale of chametz absolutely, making it impossible for even a Moslem or a Christian to have a felafel in a pita too.

...Dear Mr. Yishai: No damn government is going to tell me whether I may eat chametz or not. Get a law passed prohibiting the sale or display of all chametz, and there will be bread on my Seder table (if only for show)! With "friends" like you, attempting to force observance by coercion, we ordinary Jews don't need don't need any other enemies. Please go count your tzitzit, or something, and stay out of my kitchen. I don't force you to eat treif, don't force me to eat matzah (which, by the way, I love).

Another FOTB, Xyre:
The Israeli Haredi establishment won’t be satisfied until every square inch of Israel is a theocracy, and the men in black hats have all the power. Like Iran, but Jewish. People should have the right to buy, sell, and eat what they want during Passover. Just because some three-thousand-year-old law says you shouldn’t eat hametz, that means everybody in the country must be prohibited from it? Passover is about freedom. This includes the freedom not to give a damn about old laws and customs.

...I’m glad for the judicial ruling that recognizes that if people—Jews—want to sell and buy hametz during Passover, they have every right to do so. This is victory for rationality, consideration, and tolerance, and against caving to the Haredim and surrendering personal choice to the theocracy that some Jews are intent on creating in Israel. People have rights, including the right not to observe old (and frankly, quite silly) traditions.

I don't hate Passover. I don't hate religious Jews. I understand that some of them are very upset by a Jewish state that doesn't seem to care about enforcing Jewish law. But the laws of the State of Israel are not the same as Jewish law, and not banning hametz does not infringe on religious Jews' rights to practice their religion. One blogger says the loss of the hametz law paves the way towards the final split of the Jewish people in Israel:

You want stores to have the right to sell chametz on Passover. For seven simple days, you cannot stand the idea of going without bread. You’ll follow your carbohydrates-free diet all year long, but on Passover, woe unto those who dare to deny you the right to buy pita.

For the right to buy some rolls and noodles, you will turn your back on my beliefs. No, I don’t expect you to believe, but would it be so costly for you to honor my right to my beliefs?

...Ultimately, the sale of chametz products in Israel means another desecration of what sets us apart from the rest of the world; what makes us a unique Jewish State. It will not impact on the ability to keep kosher for any religious Jew. All it will do is show us, once again, how far apart Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are – and even more importantly, it will convince those of us with orange hearts that it is useless to believe that we can ever really be one nation.

There was a civil war after the evacuation of Gush Katif. It did not play out in violence as the media and the left so gleefully predicted. It took place in the hearts and souls of those on the right. We surrender. Eat your chametz on Passover and shop on our Sabbath. Desecrate the laws of the Torah if you will and cry about your right to eat pita for those precious 7 days of the year. But what you have lost, the cost of buying that chametz will be in the millions of dollars those stores will lose from religious customers. It is our right to buy OUR pita where we will.

Go ahead, refuse to buy wine from the Golan Heights and honey from the Shomron. Don’t buy products produced in Ariel or those made in Maale Adumim. And we, in turn, will refuse to buy from stores open on Shabbat and those who sell chametz on Passover –and we will all be poorer for the experience.

But even more important than the monetary issues is the fact that you will lose our hearts, our determination to be one with the nation you want to maintain. We will not join a country that would desecrate what we value most – all for a loaf of bread, one time per year. We cannot be part of the Israel you are trying to build because it runs against everything that we believe in – a land that we hold not by the might of the army, but by the right of all that we are, all that we have survived as a people.

What is the cost of selling chametz on Passover? Far greater than Israel can afford to pay.

I acknowledge this woman's pain, but her personal anguish and anxiety seems to be clouding her identification over exactly which party is being wronged here. There is no legitimate reason to FORCE other people to observe Passover the way SHE thinks it should be properly observed. Furthermore, she does not need a LAW to either: A- celebrate her holiday the way she wants to, or even, B- to encourage others to NOT do things she'd rather they didn't. No, you SHOULDN'T get to deny people their bread products, anymore than they should get to deny you your right to eat kosher food or wear traditional clothing. It's your RIGHT to do those things, and its their right to eat whatever on earth they want.

Which leaves us with Conservative Rabbi Reuven Hammer's thoughts:

The tragic reality is that these religious-political leaders do not realize that the more laws they enact the more they alienate so-called secular Jews from Judaism. The more they rant and rave against secular Jews, the less chance they have of creating an atmosphere in which Judaism, Jewish values and Jewish observances will be honored and even followed by the population at large. The more coercion is brought to bear in religious matters, the more the population will rebel against it and revile Judaism.

Rather than spending their energy in trying to enforce unenforceable laws of dubious value, true religious leaders - as opposed to political leaders wrapped in the cloak of religion - would spend their time teaching and demonstrating the beauties of Judaism. Instead they are busy demonstrating the exact opposite. They use their political leverage to wrest vast sums of money from the government, i.e. from the pockets of the taxpayers, to support thousands who will not serve their country in the army or any other way, thereby creating hatred among the secular. They bring disrespect upon Judaism - and desecrate God's name - by sending to the Knesset those who end up in jail for flaunting the very laws of the Torah they pretend to represent.

Every time a religious leader stands up in the Knesset or elsewhere and spouts nonsense such as the speech we recently heard about homosexuals being responsible for earthquakes or faulty mezuzot bringing on terrorist attacks, every time we hear religious people denouncing the government, the courts, the police and whatever as illegitimate, more and more people are turned away from Judaism.

Former Meretz MK and Israel Prize winner for law scholarship Amnon Rubinstein agrees:

The great majority of Israeli Jews want to remain Jewish and would like their offspring not only to stay within the Jewish people but also know more about their heritage. This is why the great majority would opt for Jewish marriages, even if one day civil marriage is introduced. In the same way, they continue to circumcise their male babies - although this should have logically been the most difficult of rites to observe - and to be buried under rabbinical auspices. But when there is an attempt to force on them religious law through secular parliamentary exercises, many rebel.

I am not religious, but out of a mixture of sentiments - including irrational ones - I observe certain traditions. This is why I do not eat hametz on Passover and enjoy matzot throughout the holiday. But I do recognize the right of others to eat and buy whatever they like. This is the substantive meaning of democracy, and this is why, to people like me, Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, notwithstanding the post-Zionist mumbo-jumbo to the contrary.

Indeed. If people on the right are really so concerned about what their fellow Jews are eating, they should be spending energy making them WANT to follow the holiday, to want to at least make an effort. Don't legislate it, and don't demean people that don't want to do it the way you do. It will have the opposite effect, turn them off even more from Judaism and holiday observance, and create ever-more resentment between the two groups.

Any religious practice that can only be enforced through coercion isn't worth enforcing. Such a move is a failure of both religion and democracy, both of which should be voluntary by nature. Passover is the most widely observed holiday in the entire Jewish world. Allowing some supermarkets to sell bread will not stop this. But legislating people's personal rights and freedoms will leave a bad taste in their mouths for years to come. And I'm not just talking about the matzah.


Antigonos said...

"Questionable culinary taste"? Brother, you'd swoon over my knaidlach!

I'm flattered you read my blog.

As a medical professional, I should note that there are those for whom the prohibition on chametz is more than inconvenient -- it can actually damage their health. There are essential medications which are chametz and MUST be taken; certain kinds of gastrointestinal conditions preclude the eating of matzah, diabetics almost inevitably find trying to manage their blood sugars during the week nearly impossible [one half of one matzah is the equivalent of one piece of bread. Diabetics must consume limited amounts of carbohydrates or they can become hypoglycemic; too much and the resulting high blood sugar can cause diabetic complications.] Religious parents often stop giving infants formula and give whole milk instead, causing diarrhea, which can be very serious in an infant. And so on.

Friar Yid said...

All those medical issues sound pretty nasty. Of course, being the responsible public servant that he is, I'm sure MK Yishai is already aware of this and will make appropriate exceptions to his law to ensure that no one's health is endangered, as per pikuach nefesh.

...What's that you say? He's a sensationalist dillhole? Well then never mind.