The Chief Rabbinate has withdrawn its support for a plan to set aside designated areas in hospitals where chametz, leavened food that is not kosher for Passover, could be eaten by patients and visitors during the holiday. The apparent concern is that the presence of chametz in hospitals might make religiously observant people reluctant to be hospitalized over Passover, posing a risk to their health.
When the state became aware of the shift in the Chief Rabbinate's position on the matter, it asked for a hearing on the matter that had been scheduled for Tuesday of this week at the High Court of Justice to be postponed. The court agreed to delay the hearing for a month.
The plan was a compromise that the government submitted to the High Court of Justice last month in response to a petition challenging the general ban on chametz in Israeli hospitals during Passover. In its submission, the state said the proposal had been coordinated with both the Health Ministry and the Chief Rabbinate and was conditioned on taking steps to prevent chametz from making its way into other areas of the hospitals.
The government said it had learned of the shift in the rabbinate’s position on Sunday, but in fact, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef expressed his objections to the plan almost immediately after it was submitted to the court.
In a letter to Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman on December 26 of last year, Rabbi Yosef wrote: “Permitting the presence of chametz of any kind could make public hospitals in the State of Israel off limits to Jews who observe tradition ... because if they are forced to choose between possibly violating an obligation of the Torah and going to the hospital during the holiday, those who observe tradition, which is most of the Israeli public, might refrain from going to the hospital. This poses a real risk to health and public well-being.”
The Sephardi chief rabbi said the Health Ministry has the authority to issue rules or administrative guidelines regulating the ban on chametz in those hospitals that serve areas in which most of the residents are Jews. “In such a case, along with the public, cultural, religious and social importance of preventing the hospitals from being exposed to chametz, the ban on exposure to chametz in medical institutions is a health and medical issue of the first order, since nearly 70 percent of the Jewish population in Israel might avoid coming to the hospital during Passover,” Yosef wrote.
In his request to postpone Tuesday’s hearing, Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri wrote that the rabbinate had received a large number of complaints about the compromise plan. "As a result of these complaints, the issue is being reconsidered, and the rabbinate has announced that it is withdrawing its support for the alternative presented to the ... court.”
Yair Nehorai, a lawyer representing the Secular Forum organization, which filed the High Court petition challenging the chametz ban, said in response: “We are again witnessing an intra-religious effort that is seeking to sweep up Israel's free population. It would behoove [Justice Minister] Ayelet’s Shaked’s people who came up with the crazy idea of creating holding pens for secular people to recognize that those who violate basic rights in the name of ‘the character of the Jewish state’ will end up with a halakhic state,” a reference to a country governed by traditional Jewish religious law.
In his reaction to the latest development, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Reform Movement in Israel, which had been negotiating the issue with the Health Ministry, made reference to plans for an expanded egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, which the government has failed to implement in the face of opposition.
“Just as with the Western Wall plan, here too the rabbinical establishment is backing down from deals and compromises it had agreed to — under pressure from extremists. This is additional proof that the rabbinical establishment over the past two decades has undergone serious radicalization. There is a need to develop new understandings and compromises on issues of religion and state without giving [the rabbinical establishment] veto power or preferred status.”
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