Fallower Than Thou

Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger
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Yair Ettinger
Yair Ettinger

The ultra-Orthodox attempt to force everyone in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Ashdod and other cities to consume only imported mehadrin - stringently kosher - produce during the shmita (sabbatical) year has given rise to an ostensibly united national-religious opposition of rabbis and Knesset members.

However, the shmita crisis, whose first chapter ended in an ultra-Orthodox defeat at the High Court of Justice, has diverted attention from a no less fervid ideological battle raging within religious Zionism. On the surface, this is about a dispute in rabbinic law. Beneath the surface, this is a stormy fight that touches upon the political agenda within religious Zionism.

The rabbis of the Religious Kibbutz movement and the liberal rabbis support the heiter mehira - sales permit - the traditional rabbinic solution that allows Jews to consume produce from lands that have been symbolically sold to a gentile for the fallow year. Then there's the strictly Orthodox Zionist (Hardali) camp, which considers the heiter mehira a last resort only. This growing camp rejects the ultra-Orthodox system that prefers fruits and vegetables imported from abroad.

This year, this camp has set up Otzar Haaretz, an ambitious project calling for "a strictly Jewish fallow year." The group is stirring stormy emotions in both camps. Otzar Haaretz was founded by the Torah and Land Institute, which operated out of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip until the 2005 evacuation. Its heads include the rabbis of the evacuated settlement bloc Gush Katif. This kashrut organization has a huge produce production operation. In preparation for the fallow year, it signed people up to promise to consume the agricultural produce it supplies. According to Eliezer Barat, a member of the initiative's management, 20,000 families have joined so far - more than 150,000 souls - and the total number of consumers is double that, since many are not subscribers.

The initiative's rabbis have ranked various sources - the main thing being that "enemies' vegetables" not be included, as Barat puts it. So what is included? Nearly every method that circumvents the main prohibition of the fallow year: the cultivation of soil in the land of Israel. The Otzar rabbis call for other methods, like raising produce on beds that do not touch the ground, or cultivating the southern Arava (which is not considered to be within the boundaries of the land of Israel for purposes of the fallow year).

Their first preference, however, is relying on otzar beit hadin, considered the most stringent method in rabbinic law, which allows for vegetables (and some kinds of fruit) to be raised under various restrictions.

Thus there has been a switch in historic roles: The ultra-Orthodox have almost entirely abandoned the method of otzar beit hadin, which is identified with the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz), who was among the state's founders, in order to avoid the halakhic complications it entails. In contrast, a growing segment of the national religious camp is abandoning the heiter mehira, which is associated with its founding father Rabbi Yitzhak Hacohen Kook. Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, one of the heads of religious Zionism and the rabbi of Ramat Gan, has called anyone who relies on the heiter mehira "a villain in the realm of Torah."

Two and a half weeks ago, the Otzar Haaretz rabbis published a notice in the press in an attempt to ameliorate the dispute. Prior to the publication, the Religious Kibbutz rabbis had asked their more observant colleagues to disassociate themselves from the ultra-Orthodox who reject the heiter mehira, in which most of Israel's farmers participate. Religious Kibbutz members fear that Otzar Haaretz's strictly Orthodox consumers, along with the ultra-Orthodox public boycotting local produce, will bring about the destruction of large amounts of Israeli produce later in the sabbatical year.

In the wake of the religious Kibbutz appeal, senior rabbis, among them the late Rabbi Avraham Shapira, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu and Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, wrote that the heiter mehira was "valid and should not be questioned," but for those who wish to maintain the strictest levels of observance, "it is preferable to eat otzar beit hadin produce and produce about which there is no question in rabbinic law."

The rabbis, who have committed themselves to providing Jewish produce in any case, explained that they would also provide imported produce, under the ultra-Orthodox system, "since Otzar Haaretz is a public body interested in providing stringent agricultural produce for a varied population."

It is doubtful that the publication softened the edges of the disagreement. Despite the fact that rabbis from both camps are prepared to agree with the halakhic rulings in the announcement, the fallow year is continuing to lead religious Zionism toward the schism that started during the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank: extreme stringency with respect to rabbinic law alongside sectarian separatism, versus an attempt by the "state-oriented" and liberal stream to connect to secular society.

Nonetheless, the schism's current lines do not overlap those of the other disputes: The moderate wing, for example, includes rabbis from the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva (named after Rabbi Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the founder of the state-oriented heiter mehira) and of Har Hamor, who oppose any secular and academic education, where as some of the leading Tzohar rabbis, like Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, are signatories to Otzar Haaretz. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, the rabbi of the West Bank community of Beit El, who has been considered a "state-oriented" rabbi since the disengagement, recently wrote a stern article against Otzar Haaretz, arguing that the refusal to use the heiter mehira has "many flaws," first and foremost the "damage to the earnings of Jews, and of course it is written 'that thy brother may live with thee' [Leviticus 25:36]."

But it is not by chance that the rabbis who have been leading the public struggle against the ultra-Orthodox and the strictly Orthodox national religious, and have been championing the heiter mehira, are the rabbis of Tzohar, the Religious Kibbutz movement and other moderate Orthodox. Many of them are involved in initiatives like Ma'agalei Tzedek, champion social rights within the spirit of halakha, perform marriages without pay and fight the ultra-Orthodox line in the rabbinic courts, and have denounced the breaking of the teachers strike among national religious schools. Regarding the sabbatical year, they also express solidarity "not only with 'our own' people," in the words of Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, until recently the head of Religious Kibbutz yeshiva at Ein Tzurim. Rabbi Bin-Nun, for example, is trying to lead an initiative on a forgotten part of the commandments regarding the fallow year - - the cancellation of debts at the end of every seventh year. His aim is to establish a fund for the cancellation of all Israelis' debts.

Rabbi Benny Lau, the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, told Haaretz recently that rabbis must denounce the oppression of manpower company workers just as they must thwart the threat hanging over most producers and consumers of produce in Israel. "The title 'rabbi' has to come with collateral," he said. "What is happening now in religious Zionism is bringing us closer to intra-Zionist solidarity. Rabbis want to see religious services as a more central core of Israeli society while saying what needs to be said in the face of ultra-Orthodox violence."

Rabbi Bin-Nun supports the rabbinic law behind the principles of Otzar Haaretz, but nevertheless sees it as "first-class national irresponsibility." "In Israel there are 20,000 farmers under the heiter mehira. All together, this is the livelihood of 80,000 people. This is 10 times the population of Gush Katif. If for one year all of these people do not earn a living, many of them will not be able to continue working in agriculture. The rabbinic alternatives to the heiter mehira cannot supply the market's needs, and even if we do supply all the produce in accordance with Otzar Haaretz, the question will remain as to how ordinary farmers will make a living. Are we going to do to all the farmers what the state has done to the farmers of Gush Katif?

"I see in this a kind of thinking that resembles the refusal to obey orders during the expulsion from Gush Katif," says Rabbi Bin-Nun. "There were rabbis who thought that if we threatened to refuse, the government would surrender, but it is not by chance that the vast majority of the religious soldiers understood the significance of this and did not refuse. They understood that there would not be an army, because if we take responsibility for the people and the kingdom, this has to be done all the way. It is impossible to leave 20,000 farmers without a living. I am in favor of a plan, but the rabbis must try to persuade the state, the people. I don't want to impose myself on others."

Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, one of the heads of Otzar Haaretz, says that the initiative reconciles the concerns of farmers with those of consumers who refuse to compromise in matters of rabbinic law. "Our line is to see to Jewish agriculture that observes the strictures. I was the first to defend the heiter mehira, but the difference between me and them (the critics of Otzar Haaretz - Y.E.) is that I don't see the heiter mehira as an ideology or a positive commandment written in the Torah. A secular farmer must receive a heiter mehira so that he doesn't fail. We are in favor, but not of making this an ideology; it is not an aspiration. I relate to this like Rabbi Kook: It's better to manage without. The rabbis you have mentioned undoubtedly have not yet approached the stature of Rabbi Kook.



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