Leave the Sabbath Alone

The champions of social contracts should, one would expect, celebrate the private-member bill proposed by MK Nahum Langental (National Religious Party) and supported by several enthusiastic Labor lawmakers.

The champions of social contracts should, one would expect, celebrate the private-member bill proposed by MK Nahum Langental (National Religious Party) and supported by several enthusiastic Labor lawmakers. MK Effi Oshaya (Labor) has even termed the bill - which would prohibit commerce on the Sabbath, but would permit the opening of restaurants, theaters, cinemas and other cultural and recreational establishments - a revolution. Other lawmakers have said that the very fact that a dialogue is taking place is, in itself, a revolution.

Once again, fast-moving politicians are marketing soft voices of "dialogue" between the camps to a public that is tired of imaginary clashes. Who is really interested in the Sabbath these days anyway? Aside from a few Druze inspectors, who barely eke out a living from the documentation of Sabbath violations at kibbutz-run shopping malls or in shops selling nuts and candy, no one is terribly upset about which businesses are open and which are closed on Saturdays.

Just when it seems that most religious Israeli Jews have come to terms with the widespread opening of commercial establishments, restaurants, cinemas and the like on the Sabbath; and just when most secular Israeli Jews have made peace with the flourishing and ever-increasing number of synagogues, rabbinical seminaries, ritual baths, various Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish educational institutions and centers for returning people to their Jewish roots, it seems strange that this diligent group is announcing the arrival of the revolution.

The spirit of this bill is nothing new. Some 18 years ago, when Langental was in the Bnei Akiva movement, he and his colleagues formulated a similar idea. In February 1998, Labor MK Yossi Beilin and Alex Lubotsky of the now-defunct The Third Way (of blessed memory) drafted the text of a social contract between secular and religious Jews in Israel. The contract included a proposal regarding the Sabbath and was endorsed by a number of rabbis affiliated with the Meimad movement. It was certainly a progressive, reasonable document: Lubotsky and Beilin proposed public transportation on Saturday in accordance with the needs of the residents of local communities.

Six months later, then-education minister Yitzhak Levy (NRP) made banner headlines with a declaration he voiced at a conference in Kfar Blum. Levy said that all those who wanted to eat pork or go to the movies on the Sabbath were free to do so. At the time, Levy was traveling throughout Israel, trying to persuade secular and religious Jews that he and the NRP were interested in a social contract - not one that was identical with Meimad's, but something a little different.

Not all of the rabbis associated with Levy agreed to this initiative. However, together with jurist Professor Ruth Gabison of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as the support of the Yitzhak Rabin Center for Israel Studies and the Shalom Hartman Institute, a leading, influential teacher on the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District, Rabbi Yaakov Madan drafted another social contract. The draft text of this contract is currently being formulated under the title: "Basis for a new social contract between religiously observant and free-thinking Jews in Israel."

There is nothing wrong with a return to the idea of a social contract. Langental himself is familiar with all the social contracts formulated thus far and points out that in contrast to these documents, this is the first time that a bill specifically dealing with the Sabbath has been proposed in parliament. He notes two innovations in his bill. First of all, the message of compromise is being issued by the Knesset, the chief arena for showdowns between secular and religious Jews. And secondly, the bill defines only forbidden activities (meaning that aside from these activities, everything else is permissible), with the aim of enabling religious Israeli Jews to live in peace with what the reality of Israeli life has already changed in any case.

The only problem is that Langental's initiative is unnecessary. The dialogue train that began its journey on the day after Yitzhak Rabin's assassination and has been driven primarily by fears that Israeli society might be split down the middle has long since disappeared behind the clouds of the intifada. Meanwhile, secular Israeli Jews, who felt the train was exploiting them, have become disgusted with it, and rightly so.

The settlers have, in any event, attained an old-new status of prestige: Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District are here; there is no one to talk to (on the Palestinian side); and Israel, which, for a brief moment during the Rabin era, began to take on the appearance of a civic society, has returned, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, to the "Fortress Israel" atmosphere of the 1950s, supplemented by the narrow-minded thinking of both the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and Shas.

Secular Israeli Jews, especially the leftist variety, should show their preference today for a cultural war because the package deal can no longer be separated into its component parts: The settlements, Jewish laws of marriage and divorce, Jewish women who cannot obtain a get (religious divorce decree), Jewish women who have been deserted by their husbands who refuse to give them a divorce and rabbinical courts that do not force wife-beating husbands to grant their spouses a divorce are all intertwined.

Moreover, the tacit agreement of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to the bill is evidence that the members of this community are more interested in it than are the secular Israeli Jews, who are, in any case, happy with the present state of affairs - in which everything is open on the Sabbath (commerce, entertainment and high-brow culture).

The social-issue arguments used by the bill's religious proponents, who criticize the kibbutzim for unfairly competing against city-based merchants and who lament the fact that secular Jewish youth in Israel is being seduced by capitalist consumer culture, are touching, but not credible. When those same rabbis are ready to participate in protest demonstrations in the development town of Ofakim, to fight for schools for Bedouin children and to invite leftist secular novelists, dramatists and intellectuals to their yeshivas, the common values can be re-examined and perhaps some sort of common Israeli cultural identity can be created.

In the meantime, these rabbis should devote their concern to their own dwindling culture, instead of deciding for secularist Israeli Jews what is cultural (movie theaters?) and what is not (buying books and CDs?).

Secular Israeli Jews do not need a Sabbath law at this time. It can even be assumed that the Sabbath itself, which can be quietly and happily observed by anyone who wants to do so, does not need this law - to the contrary.