Removing hametz from the heart

Religious coercion will only lead the public to rebel and revile Judaism.

bread 88 224 (photo credit:)
bread 88 224
(photo credit: )
The recent furor about the Hametz Law is an unfortunate illustration of the tragic state of secular-religious relations in Israel and of the need to create a more positive attitude toward tradition in this, the Jewish state. On the one hand, we have religious leaders - mostly political leaders - ranting about the demise of Judaism and virtually cursing the court and the secular public for this ruling. On the other hand, we have secular activists reacting with glee that Jews will be free at last to eat hametz on Pessah without having to patronize Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem to do so. The religious-political leaders are busily trying to see to it that new legislation is enacted that will force hametz back in hiding, as if that will solve the problem once and for all. The truth is that this is a case in which legislation is not only difficult if not impossible to enforce but one in which such legislation - in the present atmosphere - only makes the situation worse. Of course those of us who value the traditions of Judaism would like to see the absence of hametz in public places, but it is doubtful if more legislation will really accomplish that and if the price will be worth it. 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. The monopoly that the secular government has given the Chief Rabbinate in matters of marriage and divorce has similarly harmed religion. Not being able to have the rabbi of your choice officiate at a wedding, having to prove one's eligibility for marriage to unsympathetic clerks and listen to unwanted lectures, the well-known aguna problem, and the obstacles placed in the path of potential converts - all these further alienate secular Jews from Judaism. It is unlikely that we will see a true renaissance of Judaism in this country (as opposed to a rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews dues to their birthrate) until the monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate is broken and coercion is removed from the language of religious life. BUT SINCE that is unlikely to happen in the near future, it would behoove the secular population to remember that by ignoring or despising Judaism they are depriving themselves of a wonderful cultural and spiritual heritage and of practices and ideas that could enrich their lives. They are also depriving the Jewish state of its heritage and weakening the roots that are the very raison d'etre of the State of Israel. Difficult as it is, they should try to ignore the extremists and the religious politicians, to remember that the vast majority of observant Jews are honest, loyal citizens and above all to remember that those who purport to represent Judaism do not. The vast legacy of Judaism is not to be identified with the Chief Rabbinate or with religious political parties. We dare not throw out the baby with the bath. On the contrary, let us give Judaism a chance. As for hametz, before rushing to buy it and eat it on Pessah to show how liberated we are, why not consider what it stands for. The prohibition of hametz is a central pillar of the Pessah holiday which celebrates the liberation of our people from bondage. Avoiding hametz is our way of reminding ourselves of our humble origins and that freedom from foreign oppression is the will of God. The enslavement of one people by another is contrary to the will of the Divine and must be overcome. Hametz in our tradition is the symbol of enslavement and of corruption. It is, as the sages called it, "the leaven in the dough," while its absence represents all that is simple, good and pure. When we burn the hametz it is customary to say, "Just as I have removed all hametz from my home and from my ownership, so may I evict the evil inclination from my heart, and so may You dislodge the evil from the earth." Living in a society surrounded by corruption in high places and in a world in which evil is all around us, is it not worthwhile to dedicate ourselves to the thought that we should make every attempt to rid ourselves of evil, corruption and enslavement, beginning with each of us personally? Hametz will disappear from the streets when it and all it stands for disappears from our hearts. Another law will not accomplish that. The writer is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.