(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Those haredim in Israel are at it again, inventing new stringencies, coercing other Jews, trying to make a dishonest buck and generally making life unlivable for everybody else.
At least that is what seems to emerge from recent reportage about the agricultural sabbatical year - or shmita, ushered in on Rosh Hashana.
The New York Times contended that an Israeli Chief Rabbi, because he respected a revered elder rabbinical leader's judgment, is "considered" - by whom was not clarified - "a puppet" of the senior rabbi.
A New York Sun columnist insinuated that a religious legal decision was born of a desire to make money on the backs of the poor. "There are, after all, no farmers in the ultra-Orthodox community," wrote Hillel Halkin, wrongly, "and plenty of rabbis and kashrut supervisors who will find jobs making sure that Jewish-grown fruits and vegetables are not, God forbid, being smuggled into the diet of unsuspecting Israelis." And a New York Jewish Week editorial both got its facts wrong (contending that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, by setting a kashrut certification standard, had "disallowed" food of lower standards) and saw fit to invoke an unsubstantiated accusation of moral turpitude against one rabbi and the arrest of another's family member as indictments of the rabbis' religious legal opinions.
SOME ISRAELI publications were shriller still. The Jerusalem Report characterized the granting of permission to local rabbis to set their communitiesâ€š kashrut standards thus: "Confrontation looms as the increasingly powerful ultra-Orthodox camp flexes its muscles and attempts to impose strict observance of the shmita commandment on all Israelis."
Irresponsible media coverage of haredim is nothing new. But were such misinformation and provocation used against Jews rather than against some Jews, it would be roundly condemned as something worse than journalism-as-usual.
THE FACTS: The Torah enjoins Jews privileged to live in the Holy Land to not till or plant in Jewish-owned soil during each seventh year, known as shmita. What grows of its own is to be treated as ownerless and may not be sold. Shmita-observance bespeaks our recognition that the land is the Lord's, and its merit allows Jews to, in the words of Leviticus [25:19], "abide in the land, in safety." For Jews who believe that Israel perseveres only through miracles, shmita is no minor mitzva.
When substantial numbers of Jews began to return to the Holy Land in the 19th century, some farmers among them endeavored to observe shmita; most, though, living in deep poverty, did not. As a result, in 1896, religious leaders - including haredi rabbis - approved a fall-back plan whereby land owned by Jews was technically transferred to the possession of an Arab for the duration of the shmita year. That way, Jewish farmers would be acting as sharecroppers rather than as tillers of their own shmita-qualifying soil.
During subsequent shmita years, many farmers continued to rely on that sale loophole or heter mechira. And when the state of Israel was created, the official state Rabbinate endorsed it as well.
A few farmers, though, opted to observe shmita in its original way, allowing their fields to lie fallow and relying on other income or charity (ultimately, on God), to make it through the months when they could not farm and sell produce. As a result, in the 1950s and 1960s, about 250 acres of land "rested" as per the Biblical injunction.
Later shmita years saw increasing numbers of farmers follow suit. Seven years ago, the number of acres left untilled had risen more than 200-fold from the 60s, to 55,000. This year, 3,000-3,500 farmers will be observing shmita, and 100,000 acres are expected to be left fallow in accordance with the Torah's direction. Every major Orthodox kashrut-certification agency in North America approves only Israeli produce hewing to the highest shmita standard.
The reasons for the growth of shmita-observance are several, among them a general trend toward greater observance, recognition of the ad-hoc nature of the heter mechira, and the experience of farmers who not only did not suffer for their shmita observance but experienced unusual blessings.
SO WHAT'S with all the negative press? Good question. 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). Media like the Jewish Week misleadingly described the new policy as some sort of prohibition.
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.
But, as The New York Times article admitted, about Jerusalem haredim: "The community is already among the poorest in Jerusalem, but the rulings of their rabbis matter far more to them than money." And speaking of money, Jews outside Israel are putting theirs where their beliefs are.
A 35-year-old organization, Keren Hashvi'is, raises millions of dollars each shmita year to help support shmita-observant farmers. Most donations are relatively small, from people of limited means - testifying to the broad and deep connection tens of thousands of Jews worldwide feel to their Israeli brethren farming holy soil. (In the United States, Keren Hashvi'is operates from Agudath Israel of America's Manhattan offices.) But jaundiced eyes see only haredi Jews poisoning Jewish wells. It is a truly strange panorama: Observers usually enamored of ecological and liberal ideals have somehow been transformed into fierce opponents of leaving nature alone, of providing Arabs with extra income and of permitting individual rabbis to rule in accordance with their consciences.
And in the background, religiously dedicated farmers are doing what they believe will merit security and peace for the Holy Land, with help from Jews across Israel and around the world.
The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.