The shmita fiasco

Now that the dust has settled, what lessons are there to be learned?

shmita 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shmita 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Now that several weeks have passed and tempers cooled, it may be useful to revisit an issue that arises periodically and has much to teach us about the dysfunctions of politicized religion in Israel. Every seven years one of the foundational dramas of religious Zionism plays itself out once again as the Zionists in the Israeli rabbinate on the one hand, and the Haredi rabbis on the other, engage in contentious debate and elaborate political choreography over observance of the mitzva known as shmita, letting the land lie fallow. This time the struggle brought a novel development. The Chief Rabbinate, the government institution that perhaps most embodies the National Religious Zionist vision of the State of Israel, took steps to enforce the more stringent, and anti-Zionist, Haredi ideological agenda regarding shmita. The result was rebellion in the ranks of the Zionist rabbis; intervention by the Minister of Agriculture to prevent an economic disaster for Israeli farmers; intervention by the Israeli Supreme Court; retreat by the Chief Rabbi; and finally, like the morning after a hurricane, an eerie silence. To understand recent developments, we need to go back to the years of the first and second aliyot, to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. THE FIRST ALIYA took place between 1882-1903. The 60,000 or so participants came mainly from a broad cross-section of Eastern European Jewish society, secular and religious. The first shmita year after the founding of their villages was in 1889. That year saw the pattern set. The farmers argued that leaving the land fallow for a year (and then waiting another year to get a crop in) would render their project utterly uneconomical. The rabbis who led the fervently Orthodox communities that traditionally based themselves on financial support from overseas, argued strenuously that it was critical to carry out the mitzva of shmita in its strictest forms because this reflects the special sanctity of the Land of Israel. Israeli scholar Avinoam Rosenak points out that the First Aliya settlements were also not economically independent. They were largely financed by Edmond de Rothschild. Therefore, the debate was more ideological than strictly economic. It was and remains a debate about the deeper religious meaning of the settlement of the Land of Israel. Does that value justify flexibility in interpreting the laws of shmita? For the anti-Zionist fervently Orthodox rabbis in the old Yishuv and their rabbinical supporters overseas, agricultural settlement on the Land was not and is not a prime value. For the pioneers of the First Aliya, and their rabbinical supporters in the National Religious camp, it was and is. Rabbis sympathetic to the pioneers issued halachic opinions suggesting a resolution similar to selling hametz on Pessah. They proposed that Jewish-owned land would be sold to a non-Jew who was not obligated by the laws of shmita for the duration of the shmita year. The Jewish farmers could then continue to work that land as his agents. This arrangement, known as heter mehira gained the support of the Sephardic Chief Rabbi and the Eastern Jewish communities as a whole. The controversy returned in 1903 and especially in 1910 with greater intensity. The rabbi of Jaffa, and future first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, championed the cause of the settlers and issued the heter mehira. For this he was subjected to abuse and isolation within the rabbinic community in the Land, but he stood his ground. For the important stream known as National Religious Judaism, Rav Kook's stand is seen as a foundational moment when their form of Orthodox religious Zionism found itself differentiated sharply from the Judaism practiced by the fervently Orthodox Haredi communities. Kook's pioneering interpretation of the role of Chief Rabbi during the British Mandate established the model against which all who followed him were measured. WHICH BRINGS us to the recent shmita fiasco. Over the years, the political power of the Haredim has grown considerably within the ranks of the established Chief Rabbinate. The current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yona Metzger, is a man who faithfully carries out the wishes of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered the greatest living Haredi rabbi and an ardent opponent of the heter mehira. Intent on winning the halachic debate and overthrowing the pro-Zionist stance advocated by Rabbi Kook and his students, Rabbi Elyashiv is thought to have supported the election of Rabbi Metzger to the Chief Rabbinate with this goal in mind. Nevertheless, a frontal assault on the heter mehira was evidently considered too incendiary. Rabbi Metzger chose a different tactic, picking up on an earlier and rather ugly event in 2000, when former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron was forced through harsh political pressure to withdraw his support for the heter mehira. Evidently in order to sidestep the need to be seen to take his own stand, the national Chief Rabbinate empowered the local city chief rabbis to make their own decisions. Twelve city chief rabbis, including major centers like Petah Tikva, Herzliya and Jerusalem, refused to sanction the heter mehira. However, overall the tactic backfired. Since some city chief rabbis approved the heter mehira, Israeli produce grown by Jews was marked kosher in their towns. In the towns in which rabbis refused to legitimize the heter mehira, produce that was sometimes from the same farm was marked un-kosher. ONE RESULT was outrage in the National Religious camp. Another was acute fear of economic chaos in the agricultural sector. The heter mehira applied to between 80 and 90 percent of the local produce market in Israel. Since so many Israeli consumers tend to pay close attention to kosher certification, delegitimization of the heter mehira and the suddenness and inconsistency with which this was applied nationwide threatened losses estimated at tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars (although it is hard to gauge the accuracy of these widely disparate estimates). The feared collapse of the produce market threatened severe repercussions for related industrial and service sectors (truckers, packing houses, retailers, restaurants etc). BUT THERE is more to it than money. Indeed, one of the telling points made on the Haredi side was that in these times of prosperity there is no reason anymore to offer allowances to farmers who are no longer "pioneers." The Zionists countered with two points. First, the Haredi rabbis had not supported the heter mehira in the lean years so their credibility in making an economic argument was not great. Second, their cavalier attitude toward the economic losses of the agricultural sector showed how, just as a hundred years ago, they still fail to grasp the religious depth of the connection to the Land. At this point an organization of Orthodox National Religious rabbis called Tzohar announced an unprecedented rebellion. It stated that it was prepared to issue its own kosher certificates based upon the heter mehira, in open defiance of those local chief rabbis who refused to do so. At the same time, a produce wholesaler filed suit before the Supreme Court, challenging the decision by the Chief Rabbi of Herzliya to refuse to accept the heter mehira. The Supreme Court found for the petitioner and ordered that either the Herzliya Chief Rabbi issue kosher certificates or allow other rabbis to do so. While some opponents of the heter mehira grumbled about the interference of the Supreme Court, the Chief Rabbinate complied with the Court's ruling. Since then … silence. FOR AMERICAN Jews and for Israelis who yearn for a new chapter in the relationship of "synagogue and state" this is a very odd development indeed, and a troubling one. Most of us would agree that whatever may be correct in terms of religious doctrine, the state ought to stay out of the game. However, the Israeli system is largely based on anti-religious European notions of religion as a service provided, regulated (and therefore dominated) by the government. This concept has proven destructive of religious culture on that continent. The shmita fiasco illustrates how society suffers in two ways. The establishment of an Israeli church-like state-appointed hierarchy creates a highly politicized "established church" where the state fills religious functions through its clerical employees. Then, it subjects the actions taken by the "established church" to secular judicial supervision as if they were secular administrative activities of the state like postal delivery, zoning, police work, etc. No one comes out of this process unwounded. The Chief Rabbinate has been seriously damaged. First it was shown to be something of an empty shell, guided by Haredi ideas and dominated by Haredi political power. Then it was shown incapable of enforcing its policies. The National Religious camp has been forced to confront its loss of power in the chief rabbinate, an arena that ever since Rabbi Kook has been a central pillar of its approach to religion and state in Israel. The Haredi leadership has been shown to seem more concerned with its own strict interpretation of halachic rules than with the welfare of the Jewish people in Israel. The secular courts have been forced to step in, overruling a religious determination by rabbis and increasing the ongoing alienation, so dangerous to Israeli democracy, between secular and religious society in Israel. Most of all, the Israeli public has been treated to a spectacle of a rabbinate detached from the real life of the people it is supposed to serve. There is that growing feeling that the Chief Rabbinate sees itself serving the needs of a self-conceived religious aristocracy, guided by its own priorities based upon Haredi principles and indifferent to the major dislocations that might have occurred had the Supreme Court not intervened. A colleague and dear friend who is a former Chief Rabbi of a Diaspora country suggests that "the haredi conquest of the Chief Rabbinate is actually part of a process of dissolution of central authority; a growing diversification; and the beginnings of the development of real pluralism, which will only bring blessing to all." He may be correct, but my instinct is to think otherwise. The sad state of Judaism in the Jewish State will not know improvement, unless religion can be disestablished and freed from the Israeli State's politics. Perhaps it is time for Israeli society, and for those who care deeply about the future of Judaism in the Jewish state, to take steps to rethink and restructure according to the alternative model of separation of church and state. The shmita fiasco shines a harsh light on the current failed system. Over time, this may be its major impact. The writer is Associate Director of the Israel/Middle East Office of American Jewish Committee.