Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, considered the leading ultra-Orthodox authority on halakha (Jewish law ), has attacked a manifesto by rabbis that urged people not to sell or rent apartments to Arabs. He did not claim this rabbinical ruling was mistaken, and he certainly did not try to argue with Maimonides, on whom the signatories largely based their ruling. His main argument - the same argument on which rabbis and community leaders based themselves throughout the long exile - was that to further "the paths of peace," such rulings must not be published, as they are liable to result in harm to Jews worldwide.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a leading religious Zionist authority on Jewish law, also had reservations about the manifesto, as did other prominent rabbis from this community. "There is no doubt," he wrote honestly, "that what was said in the manifesto was based on sources from our sages and the halakhic tradition through the ages." However, "a willingness to consider approaches that would restrict the prohibitions on this matter - which would seem to be obligatory, as there are tools and materials that make this possible - is totally missing from the document."
By "restricting the prohibitions," he means finding loopholes that would make it possible to circumvent - not, Heaven forbid, to annul - rulings issued in the distant past under very specific conditions of existence.
"The attack from both right and left on the Religious Zionist rabbinate," and "the unnecessary trouble [the ruling] caused for those faithful to the Torah and the commandments," bothers him and his community, Lichtenstein stressed. "Where," he mourned, "has the wisdom of those who are supposed to have foresight gone?"
His cry was also heard from many others ("A desecration of God's name," said a petition signed by some 900 graduates of religious Zionist yeshivas ), in light of the harsh criticism the manifesto has sparked.
I am convinced that on a personal level, Lichtenstein, like many of his colleagues, is a priori opposed to the personal pain that adopting this halakhic approach might cause. But even his comprehensive response downplayed this humanistic aspect of the problem. What predominated was the image damage caused by the disappearance of "the wisdom of those who are supposed to have foresight." Thus at bottom, his approach was not far from that of the ultra-Orthodox.
Moreover, neither these rabbis and students nor their community's politicians were the first to protest against the manifesto, as they should have been. They responded only after an accusatory finger was pointed "from both right and left" at the community and its rabbis - and even then, they did so in an apologetic manner. Neither the halakhic bull nor the public one has yet been taken by the horns.
Those who believe that halakha cannot be changed in any way must be able to provide a full response, without resorting to strained legal loopholes, to the many questions that halakha did not anticipate, or to which its answers - like the prohibition on renting apartments to non-Jews - are totally unacceptable to those who have internalized the moral principles that have become part of the basic personality of modern man. And therefore, we must find the courage to adapt parts of the "halakhic tradition through the ages," which was formulated at other times and in difficult circumstances that are very different from those of today, to contemporary times.
This adaptation should be made a priori, not to further "the paths of peace." Today's circumstances are completely different from those that existed when these precepts were formulated. Likewise, we are totally different people from our ancestors, and parts of our value system have changed - for the most part, for the better. Moreover, we live in a sovereign Jewish state.
The rabbis' initiative, it is claimed, was born of the need to prevent Arabs from taking over houses and lands out of nationalist motives and with funding from outside parties. There are indeed Arabs who say explicitly that what they lost through force must be regained through money and demography. And purchases really are being made for this purpose, mostly through Jewish front men.
But the competition between our two nations over this land will not be solved by discriminating against Arab students who wish to rent an apartment in Safed. We can only prevail by remaining determined to win - while also taking care not to deviate from proper norms of interpersonal behavior - in the existential struggle that will continue to be waged (and I would love to be proven wrong ) for many years to come over Israel's existence as a Jewish, Zionist and humane state with a democratic system of government.