Religious Affairs: The great hametz debate

The annual controversy over the sale of unleavened products during Pessah brings to light the larger questions of the character of the Jewish state.

Wearing nothing but a sock to cover his private parts, Arye Yerushalmi stood defiantly next to the bread section of the Tiv Ta'am supermarket in Tel Aviv's Nahalat Binyamin this week. Yerushalmi has made his risqué form of civil disobedience something of a tradition. Last year, the 28-year-old yeshiva student from Bat Yam performed a similar nudist stunt, to protest a Jerusalem court judge's interpretation of the 1986 Festival of Matzot Law - better known as the hametz law - which prohibits public display of leavened products for the purpose of sale. Judge Tamar Ben-Tzaban ruled that the inside of a store or restaurant does not constitute a public place. If the inside of a store is not considered "public" for the display of hametz, Yerushalmi glibly reasoned, then it should not be considered "public" for other purposes as well - such as, say, stripping. Yerushalmi is not the only observant Israeli disgruntled at what is perceived as the state's faltering Jewish character. Last week, a group of predominantly religious lawyers, calling themselves the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, launched a campaign encouraging Israelis to become "hametz narcs." Fed up with the lax enforcement of the hametz law, the forum called on citizens to take the matter into their own hands, and divulge the names of eateries, bakeries and other food venues that displayed hametz products. "The Jewish character of the State of Israel is at stake," said Nachi Eyal, chairman of the forum. "There is only one Jewish state in the world, and we have a duty to maintain its Jewishness. Making sure that the public domain remains hametz-free is part of that duty." MEANWHILE, ON Monday, in a more time-honored form of protest, a group of about 30 men with long beards, streimels, silk gowns and long white stockings made their way from Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood to nearby Rehov Hillel, to protest the sale of hametz. The men, most of them well beyond middle-age, stood on the sidewalk reading psalms outside Chili Pizza and Iwo Meat Burger, two restaurants that sell hametz, while customers ate. How effective are these various forms of protest? "I laugh at them," said Avi Ben-David, owner of Iwo Meat Burger. "The truth is those haredim disgust me. I've been in this business for 20 years. Every year they come. They cannot dictate what other people should do. They don't respect us or our feelings. They live here thanks to soldiers who fight and die to protect them." Wearing a red apron, Ben-David stood behind the meat counter preparing orders as we talked. Inside the glass display were various types of treif [non-kosher] meat, including pork patties and ham. I asked if he thought there was any justification for legislation aimed at protecting the Jewish character of the state. "There is no law that obligates people to fast on Yom Kippur, nevertheless many secular people choose of their own free will not to eat. The same is true about hametz. As soon as you try to make a law that forces people to do something against their will, you end up with the exact opposite result. Out of spite, people will not observe anything." As for the Jewish character of the state, "Look at Jews in America or Europe. They aren't so haredi. The vast majority of them do not even adhere to all those laws. So this is a Jewish state in the same sense that Jews in America are Jewish. Besides, Judaism can be expressed by educating our children about the history of the Jewish people and through traditions. But we don't have to have an ayatollah state here." FOR RELIGIOUS Jews like Meidan, the Jewish people has a common spiritual destiny. Each Jewish soul is inextricably connected to all others. When one Jew sins, it has metaphysical ramifications on the fate of the entire Jewish people. For religious-Zionist followers of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook there is an added element. The state of Israel represents the common will of the Jewish people as they embark on the beginning of the burgeoning messianic redemption. The diverse elements of the Jewish people have joined forces for a common purpose: to build Jewish sovereignty. In order for God-fearing Jews to take part in the process, this sovereignty must be a vehicle for sanctifying, not desecrating, His name. In contrast, Rotem Peretz - who sat outside Chili Pizza on Tuesday with two friends eating pizza - said that it was important to have laws that protected the Jewish character of the state. "I think it is good that there is a law against displaying hametz," he said, and his friends concurred. "I also think that places that serve hametz should not advertise. People know where to go to get hametz. Publicizing hurts some people's feelings. And that should be avoided." If maintaining the Jewish character of the state was so important, why was Peretz eating hametz? "I've been on army duty until now, and all we can eat is matzot. I've been dreaming of a piece of pizza for a few days now." AVNER SHAKI, the former justice minister who sponsored the hametz law more than two decades ago, emphasized the importance of respecting the feelings of the more traditional members of society. "This law is not intended to hurt non-Jews; it is not intended to hurt nonbelievers, secular people, atheists; it is not intended to keep anyone from conducting his private life as he sees fit," he said. "But we have the right to request that even our most principled ideological rivals lend a hand in insuring that during the seven days of this holy festival, hametz will not be seen in the public domain. The display of hametz offends the religious and nationalists, who see themselves as linked to the tradition of Israel." Shaki also pointed to the importance of maintaining the Jewish character of the state, which he called "an effort common to the vast majority of Israeli Jews, irrespective of their views, religious stream or community." However, in recent years, some modern-Orthodox leaders have reached the conclusion that religious legislation might be doing more harm than good. They argue that society has become more splintered; alienation has grown between religious and secular; and attempts to use legislation to enforce the Jewish character of the state will only exacerbate the tension. RABBI YA'ACOV Meidan, who coauthored the Gavison-Meidan Covenant with prominent secular law professor Ruth Gavison, is one of them. In a telephone interview, he said that he opposed attempts like the one initiated by the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel to enlist hametz informants. "I would not do away with the hametz law, because that might give people the wrong impression," said Meidan, one of the heads of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut. "Still, I would be careful about aggressively enforcing the law." Other religious leaders agree with Meidan. Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, chairman of Tzohar, a group of modern-Orthodox rabbis, said that coercion was counterproductive. "I personally believe that secular Israelis should want to have a hametz-free public domain, because otherwise in what way is this state Jewish?" he said. "But I also believe that any attempts to force people through legislation will only turn them off. Coercion does not bring anyone closer to Judaism." Meidan said that there was definitely religious value in preventing another Jew from committing a transgression, including through coercive legislation. "But sometimes the price you pay is too high. You might prevent someone from transgressing a prohibition, but in doing so through coercion, you end up engendering hate, alienation and fierce opposition." In contrast, Meidan sees the pork law, which prohibits raising pigs, as more readably enforceable, for "national and historical" reasons. "Jews gave their lives in the Hellenistic period, rather than eat pork. And they did this to keep their Judaism," said Meidan. IN THEIR covenant, Meidan and Gavison call on Israelis - both religious and secular - to reach an agreement on how to best observe Shabbat, holidays and other Jewish aspects of the state. For instance, legislation regarding Shabbat observance would be changed to reflect a compromise by both secular and religious. While the religious will agree to allow restaurants and places of culture and entertainment to remain open, the secular will agree to close shopping centers. As he put it in his introduction to the covenant, the Jewish people are facing numerous existential dangers "which obligate the two sides [religious and secular] to sit down and find a solution that will prevent the schism that is ripping us apart from deepening." The question is whether such diverse elements as the pious stripper from Bat Yam and members of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel can reach an agreement with men like treif butcher Avi Ben-David.