Have you noticed how fewer people are stocking up on fresh pitas to store in the freezer on the eve of Passover? Not that the masses of Israeli Jews have turned religious all of a sudden. It's just that in recent years fresh bread, a plump croissant or a granola cookie have been available almost everywhere. True, I'm mainly talking about Tel Aviv, especially in the coffee shops whose names supposedly sound French. But matza just isn't what it used to be.
Why are things different? Well, while the pejorative term "State of Tel Aviv" for this vibrant city is mean and self-righteous, we have no choice but to think about the strange gap between joyful life in Tel Aviv and life elsewhere in Israel. It seems people here are taking on a celebratory air that prefers to completely ignore the religious erosion closing in on them. It's as if they're saying eat and drink, for tomorrow who knows what they'll prevent us from doing.
Yes, the coffee shops will openly serve - in breach of the leaven law - all kinds of bread (how can you eat shrimp in butter and garlic without fresh bread? ), and more people will march in the annual gay pride parade. And there might be buses on Saturdays. But official Israel, perhaps we should say the real Israel, is sticking more and more to halakha (Jewish law ). And not just any halakha, but its most strict and anachronistic form, divorced from the pluralistic Jewish world and led by an ever-stronger establishment. Any connection between that establishment and the time, place and changing human fabric is merely coincidental.
The laws of kashrut and leavening are relatively minor matters. Even the lack of public transportation on Saturdays, while irritating, isn't terrible - as opposed to the laws governing marriage, divorce, conversion and burial. But secular people have found ways around these issues, as they have around the croissant issue: common-law spouses, weddings abroad, burials in kibbutz cemeteries.
The problem is that every detour further illustrates the religious monopoly; every time we let slide the blatant powers of religious coercion, we give the rabbis more control. What appears to be dizzying freedom is therefore nothing more than weakness and surrender. And just as secular people have given up their freedom to define the state's Jewish character, religious people have given up the freedom to bring halakha up to date.
A new and daring book by the lawyer and philosopher Pinchas Schiffman, who once led a failed fight for civil marriage, claims that a person who adheres to halakha is "condemned to freedom." He also argues against Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz's thorny separation between halakha and morality. According to Schiffman, Leibowitz absolved Judaism of morality; this is partly what liberated the religious-zealot right wing from moral responsibility.
This is a distorted arrangement. It lets secular people view Jewish heritage as cut off from a discussion of morality (and thus avoid an ideological struggle ). And it lets religious people avoid facing moral dilemmas in light of halakha. (Schiffman gives the salient example of not acknowledging homosexuality and preaching "the sanctity of the family." ) This is apparently convenient for both sides but contains the seeds of calamity. It creates the illusion of multicultural pluralism but pulls the rug out from under the definition "Jewish and democratic," which is becoming more and more rickety.
Two groups are gradually developing in Israel: One speaks out only about democracy and bravely defends its private croissant. The other speaks out only about Judaism and fights like a lion for the right to shut women up, annul conversions, make the lives of gay people miserable and monitor the modesty of kindergarten girls.
This Passover the first group will enjoy a few more croissants and good coffee in the Tel Aviv sunshine. But this group should make no mistake. If it doesn't quickly join forces with the religious camp represented by Schiffman and others like him, and finally define how it wants this "Jewish democratic" state to look, it will lose even the semblance of imaginary freedom.
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