Think Again: Why does the Hametz Law matter?

Because symbols that originate in traditional religious practice play a role in instilling Jewish national identity.

jonathanrosenblum88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
This time Tzipi Livni got it exactly right. "Precisely because I am not a religious person, I want to preserve something in Tel Aviv that symbolizes the holiday; something in the public square that does not coerce anyone to do anything or refrain from doing anything in the privacy of his home," she said in a recent discussion of the Hametz Law. The law, which forbids the public display of hametz (leavened products) for the purpose of sale during Pessah, benefits the secular Jewish state, not religious citizens. As an instrument of enforcing compliance with Halacha, the law is totally ineffective, and would be counterproductive if it were effective: Many Israeli Jews - 70 percent of whom do not eat hametz on Pessah, according to a recent Yediot Aharonot poll - would do so just to make a point if the state prohibited it. Nor is the law aimed at protecting the sensitivities of religious Jews. There is no prohibition against seeing hametz in someone else's possession. What does - or should - pain religious Jews is that other Jews feel no connection to the performance of mitzvot, not that they are witness to that fact. Rather the Hametz Law serves to remind Israeli Jews that they are members of a people with a very long history and distinctive practices that set it apart from all other peoples of the world. Strengthening national identity, as many secular Israelis have come to recognize, is the key to Israel's long-term survival. And symbols that have their origin in traditional religious practice - e.g., bans on the sale of pork, Shabbat closure laws, the closing of restaurants on Tisha Be'av - play a role in instilling Jewish national identity. The Palestinians' strategy is predicated on draining our will. They have long regarded the diminishing connection of the Jews of Israel to their past and the land as our Achilles heel. That is why Yasser Arafat tried so hard at Camp David to get the citizens of the secular Jewish state to admit that the Temple Mount was far more important to the Palestinians than to them; for in doing so he would have succeeded in severing one more tie between the Jews of Israel and their history. A STORY from the memoirs of Palestinian parliamentarian Selah Temari encapsulates Palestinian thinking on this point. While imprisoned in an Israeli jail for security offenses, Temari came to the conclusion that Israel was far too powerful to ever destroy. He even began to study Jewish history to gain insight into the perseverance of the Jewish people in the face of so much adversity. Then one night, looking through the bars of his cell, he saw his Jewish jailer eating a pita. "How could you be eating bread?" he asked. "Don't you know it is Pessah?" Replied the jailer: "Do you really expect me not to eat bread because of something that happened 3,300 years ago?" Temari records that he twisted and turned all night. By morning he had reached the conclusion that the Palestinians could expel the Jews. A people that had lost its sense of connection to its past and to the land could be defeated. Judge Tamar Bar-Asher-Tzaban, who ruled two weeks ago that the hametz statute does not apply to restaurants and supermarkets selling hametz but only to displays of hametz that can be seen from the public thoroughfare, all but invited the Knesset to rewrite the statute. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit's statement in this week's cabinet meeting that there is no room for further legislation because the court has spoken is pure ignorance. The judge did not presume to say what the law should be, or question the power of the Knesset to amend it. Her decision was a narrow, technical one that turned entirely on the interpretation of one word in the statute - bepumbi (in public). Her opinion had nothing in common with that of former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak four years ago, striking down a long-standing Knesset statute empowering municipalities to ban the sale of pork within their borders. In that case Barak created out of whole cloth a "right" to easy access to pork products. SECOND, Bar-Asher-Tzaban did not suggest that the law in question could not be enforced because it has its source in traditional Jewish religious practice. She did not follow the path of Barak in the Mealreal case, in which he struck down a 50-year-old administrative ban on the import of non-kosher meat on the grounds that Israel is not a "theocracy." In Barak's eyes, any law that has an obvious source in religious practice is inherently suspect, even if enacted by a democratically elected, secular Knesset. Banning the sale of whale meat on ecological grounds is permissible; banning the sale of pork out of respect for Jewish tradition is not. Finally, the judge did not seek to uproot the legislative intent root and branch, as the Supreme Court did when it allowed Kibbutz Mizra to restyle itself as an agricultural research institute and under that guise continue the commercial production and sale of pork products, thereby circumventing a Knesset statute against raising pigs. By leaving the door open for the Knesset to amend the Hametz Law by simply erasing a single word, or by substituting the words "in a public place (b'makom tziburi)" for "in public," Tzaban opened the way for the Knesset to reinforce Jewish identity in Israel. SOME MIGHT argue that such symbolic statements have no impact. My own life, however, gives me a different perspective. I grew up in a highly identified but non-observant Jewish home. Friday night was always a special meal at which attendance was mandatory, attire semi-formal, the Shabbat candles lit and Kiddush recited. The food might not have been kosher and the candles may have been lit after Shabbat began, but there was a subliminal message: Being Jewish is a privilege, and like all privileges it imposes obligations. But for that Shabbat table, I doubt whether I or three of my brothers who also became observant would ever have been prompted to inquire more deeply into what it means to be Jewish. That's why Tzipi Livni is right to insist on the educative power of certain symbols. At no time of the year are we surrounded by so many symbols whose meaning is engrained in the collective conscious of the Jewish people as at the Seder table. Hag kasher ve'sameah.