Shabbat Consensus

The time has come for a new way of thinking about how to maintain the Jewishness of the State of Israel.

Female rabbi being ordained 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
Female rabbi being ordained 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
Our judicial system was out of character last week.
Known primarily as a catalyst for the liberalization and secularization of Israeli society – at least since the early 1990s when former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak presided over an increasingly activist judiciary and the “constitutional revolution” – the Supreme Court last week played an altogether different, some might say reactionary, role.
Defending the religious status quo, the court’s justices – president Asher Grunis, deputy Miriam Naor and Elyakim Rubinstein – overturned a lower court ruling and ordered the Tel Aviv Municipality to enforce its blue laws.
Municipal legislation prohibits operating retail businesses starting sunset on Friday until after sundown Saturday night. But in cities like Tel Aviv, where there is a strong secular majority, clientele put immense pressure on businesses to ignore the day of rest and give in to the dictates of consumerism. For larger retailers – particularly chain stores – it is worthwhile paying the small fines of a few hundred shekels customarily leveled against them by the municipality. Smaller retailers are less able to absorb the periodic fines.
The Supreme Court justices rightly argued that as long as the local law prohibits commerce on Shabbat, the municipality has an obligation to enforce that law in an effective and fair-handed manner. Failing to do so undermines the public’s respect for the law. That the municipality profited from the lawlessness by collecting fines made the situation all the more unacceptable.
If the law does not reflect Tel Aviv’s city-that-never-sleeps character, the law should be changed. Until then, warned the court, the law must be enforced effectively, including forcing the closure of transgressors if necessary.
Secular lifestyles and blue laws clash more resoundingly in Tel Aviv than in most cities. But the underlying tensions are the same elsewhere in the Jewish state. With the breakdown of the old statist ethics that characterized Israel in the first decades after its establishment and the rise of forces such as globalism, neoliberal economics, identity politics, and the influx of a million mostly secular immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the religious status quo has become increasingly anachronistic.
For liberal-minded democrats the legislation of religious values is nearly always suspect. But even in Israel, where a strong majority favors maintaining the Jewishness of the state, old paradigms that anchor that Jewishness in coercive legislation have become obsolete and even counterproductive.
We live in an era in which individuals – in Israel and in the West in general – enjoy unprecedented autonomy. Market forces and the right to the pursuit of happiness have undermined religious authority. At the same time, religiosity has not waned. The amount of people who define themselves as religious has, if anything, grown. But increasingly people are practicing religion on their own terms.
The time has come for a new way of thinking about how to maintain the Jewishness of the State of Israel.
A possible way forward was articulated by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), who hopes to become Tel Aviv’s first openly gay mayor. Commenting on the court’s ruling, Horowitz noted it was time to amend the municipal laws, not only to enable businesses to operate legally on Shabbat but also to “safeguard” Saturday as a day of rest.
Even secular-minded leaders like Horowitz who call for recognizing Tel Aviv’s mundane realities nevertheless identify with and want to protect certain aspects of the Shabbat, particularly those aspects that promote social justice by protecting workers from the whims of capitalist employers who want employees available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If both religious and secular are willing to compromise, an updated and consensual status quo can be established either through legislation or not. Religious Israelis might consent to allowing restaurants and places of culture and entertainment to remain open on Shabbat, while secular Israelis might agree to close shopping centers and large malls.
Attempts have been made in the past to reach such a compromise. Most notable among them was the Gavison- Medan Covenant initiated by Rabbi Yaakov Medan, one of the heads of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, and Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison. These initiatives might have come before their time. They should be revisited for the sake of protecting a sense of common purpose and minimizing unnecessary social tensions.