Shmita pragmatism

This was one of Judaism's progressive practices. Now there is controversy every shmita year.

September 18, 2007 23:18
3 minute read.
Shmita pragmatism

shmita 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

This year is a shmita year - a sabbatical during which, according to the Bible, all Jewish-owned fields in the Land of Israel are to lie fallow. In its day, this was one of Judaism's progressive practices, a measure that allowed the land to recuperate from over-cultivation, not dissimilar to the scientific concepts that underlie modern crop-rotation. Now, every shmita year there is controversy. Last time, then-chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron was ostracized by the haredi leadership for personally providing Jerusalem and other cities with the option of heter mechira - a legal solution involving the sale of Jewish-owned land to non-Jews. He paid a hefty price for his move and lost the respect of the haredi establishment. This year, the clashes are shaping up to be even worse. The Supreme Court has already questioned the Chief Rabbinate's granting of a free hand to local rabbinates to foil circumventions of the ancient shmita limitations, even though these circumventions are formally sponsored by none other than the Chief Rabbinate itself. Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon has announced that he will forbid a flood of imports designed to compete with Israeli farmers and thus enable the ultra-Orthodox to shun all Jewish-grown produce for the next year. This is no niggling matter. Many Jewish farmers in Israel face ruin if their produce is eschewed. In previous shmita years, farmers were issued a blanket heter mechira (marketing permit) after signing pro forma bills of sale, ostensibly turning their land over to non-Jews for the duration of the sabbatical. In principle, this is no different than the "sale" of all leavened flour and baked goods to non-Jews during Pessah. Such contrivances accommodate ancient prohibitions to today's reality, and constitute essential manifestations of religious Zionism's ethos. Only they make the pursuit of Jewish agriculture in this land - indeed, the very fact of Zionist return to the land - halachicly possible. This pragmatic prerequisite had guided the Chief Rabbinate during most of the modern state's existence. But today, such an attitude no longer prevails at the Rabbinate. As religious Zionism loses positions of power to haredi-oriented rabbis, the need for religious pragmatism is increasingly subordinated to an exacting enforcement of the most stringent restrictions. In the case of shmita, the current Chief Rabbinate, under Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, has in essence empowered any local rabbi to disallow permits to market local produce from Jewish farms. Metzger is the protege of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the prime opponent of heter mechira and the most important halachic authority for haredi Ashkenazi Jewry. Such pedantry runs counter to the Halacha's historic spirit, which traditionally strove to find the golden mean between formalistic rules and altered socioeconomic circumstances. Jewish law did not turn a blind eye to the hardships of its practitioners. If this results in Supreme Court intervention, disingenuous Chief Rabbinate officials will only have their own double-dealing to blame. And if it results in sweeping Agriculture Ministry import prohibitions, the ultra-Orthodox will have only their own representatives to blame for making it more difficult than in past years for them to avoid local produce. Those who act for the haredim are not merely trying to secure stricter standards for themselves; they may have bitten off more than they can chew by trying to dictate haredi-style kosher supervision to secular cities. This could result in a secular backlash against religious coercion that could curtail the Rabbinate's monopoly over kashrut supervision. If the Rabbinate does not provide a halachic solution for the entire Jewish nation - religious and secular - as it was set up to do, it may end up losing its mandate altogether. Indeed, the best option might be to privatize the entire kashrut supervision apparatus. This works well enough in the US and elsewhere, and would allow restaurants and consumers to choose the type of kosher supervision with which they feel most comfortable. It is not to late for Metzger to pull the Chief Rabbinate back from the brink and restore the sensible status quo ante that served the state and all its population segments so well in years past. Those haredim unwilling to personally subscribe to Chief Rabbinate arrangements could, of course, purchase and consume only what they prefer. They should not be allowed to impose their views on the rest of society and to push its various components into conflict.

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