The Not So Chief Rabbinate

It is hard to understand why the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian establishment and the Chief Rabbinate decided to fight such a degrading battle, which ended with their being thrown out of town and left without what to eat: whether Heter Mechira or non-Jewish produce.

The Rabbinate's decision - which meant a brutal coercion of ultra-strict products also on the non-ultra-Orthodox population in Jerusalem, Herziliya, Ashdod and other cities - did not win them even a single point, and in the end the High Court of Justice intervened in a matter that is basically one of religious values, but was turned into a political and economic issue.

The Rabbinate lost face not only in the eyes of the general public, but also in the eyes of the ultra-Orthodox and even in the national-religious community - the only group left that still paid any attention to its opinions and stubbornly continued to view it as a historical symbol.

So why was the Rabbinate in such a hurry? The High Court of Justice in its decision wondered whether there were hidden pressures that led the Rabbinate to suddenly and inexplicably decide to reverse its 80-year-old policy.

Is it only the ideological determination of the Lithuanian faction to once and for all do away with the Heter Mechira - a controversial religious legal arrangement? And do they not care about the practical results or their image? All that is possible, but it seems that the shmita crisis proved beyond any doubt that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate is actually located in the small Jerusalem apartment of "the great Jewish religious legal decisor of the generation," Rabbi Elyashiv. He is the one who appointed Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger to the post in 2003 - on condition that he bring about the end of the Heter Mechira. But on the eve of the shmita year, Metzger understood that he could not pay off this debt. Now it is easy for Metzger to paint himself to his supporters as the victim of court coercion in the Heter Mechira affair.

In the ultra-Orthodox world, he is better off if the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman attacks the judges and their interference against the Torah-giants today, than if he is the target. His predecessor, Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, paid a much higher price for much less on the shmita issue.

In any case, the actions of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis hurt their own community. During the long waiting period for the court's decision, the Agriculture Ministry refused to allow imports of fruits and vegetables for the ultra-Orthodox market, which caused shortages and out-of-control prices for the existing super-strict produce, mostly Palestinian in origin.

That is why there were even ultra-Orthodox voices raised in recent weeks - not against the High Court, but against the ultra-Orthodox Kashrut bodies who did not keep their promises of a constant and cheap supply of fruits and vegetables.

Voices were even heard against Rabbi Elyashiv himself, while rival Sephardic leader and religious decisor, former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, did not hesitate to give his approval to Heter Mechira. The seeds of a rebellion against the Chief Rabbinate have also been sown among the religious Zionist community - and voices are now being heard to break the Rabbinate's monopoly on Kashrut certification.

Now that the court has ruled that the Rabbinate must issue certificates against the will of the local rabbis and their consciences - will these rabbis be willing to give up their livelihood and quit? It is likely that they will find their own "heter" - permission - that will allow them to continue to work even during the shmita year.