Religious Affairs: Matza brawl

Pessah may be drawing to a close, but the debate about its public observance is going strong.

Haredim riot  224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haredim riot 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Pessah eve, Jerusalem's haredi mayor, Uri Lupoliansky, sent out letters to food vendors throughout the capital, including those who regularly sell non-kosher food, urging them not to sell hametz (unleavened products). "Even restaurants that do not have kosher supervision [tend to] refrain from selling hametz," he wrote, "not out of fear of punishment for breaking the law, rather out of a real consideration for Jerusalemites' feelings." Lupoliansky's letter was written after the municipality lost a legal battle against four non-kosher eateries and a mini-market which sold hametz last Pessah and refused to pay their fines. At the beginning of April, Local Affairs Court Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Tsaban ruled against the municipality and in favor of the hametz sellers. In a novel interpretation of the 1986 Prohibition on the Display of Hametz Law, which rabbis and religious MKs said deviated from the original intention of legislators, the judge, herself religious, ruled that the law only prohibited "very public" displays of hametz, such as in open-air markets or shop windows facing the street. But hametz sold inside a restaurant or a mini-market could not be considered "publicly displayed." After it became clear that the municipality could not coerce food vendors to refrain from selling hametz on Pessah as long as they kept it inside, Lupoliansky hoped, nevertheless, to rid the streets of Jerusalem of hametz by appealing to Jewish conscience. Some non-kosher restaurants adopted their own version of Pessah. For instance, Yehuda Assalan, owner of several eateries, including Link, Mona, Yehoshua Bar and Za-Za restaurant-bar, told In Jerusalem's Peggy Cidor that he intended to sell hametz, but not bread. "For me, it's a symbol, I am a Jew. I will not serve bread and even less display it publicly, and believe me, I am not the only one who acts this way here." In non-kosher hamburger chains across the nation it is possible to get a cheeseburger, which mixes meat and milk products and is strictly prohibited according to Jewish law, on a kosher-for-Pessah bun. You can even have it cooked up on Shabbat. Culinary paradoxes like these are the result of the conflation of religion with national identity embodied in the hametz law. Lawmakers ruled that it was inappropriate to openly display hametz, even though there is no halachic prohibition against seeing the stuff, only owning it or deriving benefit from it. (The opinions are split on whether it is permissible to enjoy the smell of hametz on Pessah.) Like pigs or the music of the anti-Semitic German composer Richard Wagner, argued Israeli lawmakers, hametz on Pessah is an abomination, and those who display it are ignoring the sensitivities of the Jewish majority. They tried to set down in law what they felt should be the visceral reaction of every proud Jew, religious or not, to the public peddling of leavened foodstuffs, an act which seems to reject, or at least ignore, the commemoration of the miraculous biblical Exodus that created the Jewish people. AS A result of Judge Bar-Asher-Tsaban's narrow interpretation of the law, several disgruntled haredi MKs, such as Shas chairman Eli Yishai and United Torah Judaism MKs Meir Porush and Shmuel Halpert, vowed to present bills that would outlaw the sale of hametz altogether, in accordance with Jewish law. As MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) put it, the judge "left them no choice but to resort to religious coercion." In contrast, most religious Zionist MKs refrained from pushing for more stringent anti-hametz legislation. In fact, there is a fundamental argument between haredim and religious Zionists over the legitimacy of using legislation to enforce religious observance in inherently personal matters, such as selling hametz on Pessah. Generally speaking, haredi rabbis are much more inclined to use legislation as a means of enforcing halacha [Jewish law]. In contrast, religious Zionists tend to support laws that are not solely halachic in nature but also have a nationalist element, such as the hametz law. Haredi rabbis are concerned that if they do not do everything in their power to enforce halacha, they will be held responsible for the sins of their wayward Jewish brothers. They see it as placing a figurative "obstacle before the blind." If haredi legislators do not do their best to legislate laws which prevent innocent Jews from sinning, it is as if they themselves are sinning. In haredi circles, rabbis are more likely to perceive their obligation to enforce halacha via legislation, even if it entails coercion, as an extension of mutual responsibility (kol yisrael areivim zeh b'zeh). Politicians, rabbis of the Chief Rabbinate, kashrut supervisors, IDF chaplains and religious functionaries are personally responsible for the sins of those Jewish brothers who have strayed off the path. Religious-Zionist rabbis, meanwhile, are more sensitive to the downside of religious coercion: It creates a backlash of opposition among secular Israelis who do not want to be told what to do. For instance, Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, one of the heads of the Petah Tikva Yeshiva, in response to Bar-Asher-Tsaban's decision, wrote that "legislation cannot be a used as a means of coercing Jews to perform the commandments. Rather practice must emanate from religious faith." Rabbi Ya'acov Ariel, chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, also voiced opposition to the use of legislation as a coercive measure. "But the hametz law has nothing to do with halacha," said Ariel. "It reflects Jewish sensibilities. Just as you don't strip in public, you shouldn't display hametz in public. It should be that self-evident." Religious-Zionist rabbis hope to reach a consensus with secular Israelis through dialogue over the Jewish character of the state of Israel. The most striking example of an attempt at reaching an agreement through cooperation between religious and secular on church-state issues is the Gavison-Medan Covenant. Law professor Ruth Gavison and Rabbi Ya'acov Medan, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, suggest abandoning nearly all religious legislation and replacing it with a mutually agreed-upon covenant that cannot be adjudicated by the courts. Not surprisingly, the covenant, which was first published in 2002, has not made much headway. Secular Israelis reject the religious aspects of the covenant - for instance, its proposal to close large commercial centers on Shabbat. The religious oppose the relinquishing of legislation that enforces adherence to Jewish law, such as the covenant's call to permit civil marriages among Jews. Haredim, who totally reject the covenant, are not oblivious to the negative ramifications of using coercive legislation to enforce Jewish law. However, as MK Avraham Ravitz put it this week, "In the long run, I believe that laws like the hametz law end up causing more people to refrain from eating hametz. And doing away with these kinds of laws gives legitimacy to transgressing halacha. I cannot be held responsible for that."