How Israel's Orthodox Jewish Politicians Dishonor Shabbat

There's good reason why so many of Israel’s Jewish citizens look upon the Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset with indifference or contempt.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judiasm and Arye Dery of Shas.
Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judiasm and Arye Dery of Shas.Credit: Effi Sharir

What is interesting about the latest round of the “Shabbat wars” in Israel is not what they tell us about Benjamin Netanyahu but what they tell us about Israel’s Orthodox parties. It would be nice if the Orthodox parties believed in something when it comes to Shabbat, but if they do, reasonable people—including religious people of all Jewish points of view—have no idea what it is.  

Observing Shabbat is at the very heart of Jewish tradition. One might think that religious parties in Israel would articulate a consistent, sensible approach to the question of how Israel’s state institutions should handle Shabbat observance. But they don’t.  When it comes to what is arguably the central question for religious leaders in an independent, sovereign Jewish state, they have nothing to offer but gibberish, confusion, and self-interested politics. It is no wonder that so many of Israel’s Jewish citizens look upon these parties with indifference or contempt.

When Orthodox party leaders demanded that work on train infrastructure be stopped on Shabbat, leading to massive disruptions in train travel, Israelis were in an uproar. The immediate question was why had routine train maintenance that had long been accepted by the religious parties on Shabbat suddenly become unacceptable. But the larger question is this: If you accept, as I do, that it is reasonable for the Jewish state to restrict some activities on Shabbat, then what, from a religious perspective, should be prohibited and what should be permitted? And what are the religious values that should guide this decision?

As a Reform Jew, I do not expect that Orthodox Knesset members will answer these questions the same way that I do. Still, I do expect to hear from them a perspective that is coherent, principled, and rooted in tradition. But unable to find such a perspective in their ranks, I looked instead to an essay written 40 years ago by Yeshayahu Leibowitz in his Hebrew volume “Judaism, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel.”  

Leibowitz, largely unknown in America, was an Israeli scientist, religious thinker, and sharp-tongued public intellectual who died in 1994. An Orthodox Jew and a fierce Zionist, to some he was a prophet and to others a crank. But to all he was a truth-teller, applying his uncompromising religious values to the most difficult political and religious questions of his time.

In his essay, “The religious problem of Shabbat in the Jewish state,” Leibowitz defined with precision the Shabbat “problem," which was the same in 1976 as it is today. Jewish law prohibits most work on Shabbat, but in the Jewish state, certain things must be done seven days per week. Israel must provide essential services like water and electricity. The police must work and the diplomatic corps must function.  Certain industries, for technical reasons, must operate every day if they are to produce the products that they manufacture.  

Leibowitz argued that Jewish law, a product of the Diaspora and Jewish minority status, did not address the Shabbat issues that would arise in the modern State of Israel. But, he said, it must do so now. He called upon Israel’s rabbis and religious establishment to issue opinions on what exactly can be done on Shabbat in a Jewish state and what cannot. And not only that: Once the rabbis had made their decisions, he called upon Orthodox Jews to join secular Jews in carrying out those essential tasks. In his eyes, in fact, meeting essential needs for the Jewish state on Shabbat was something that Orthodox Jews should see as a religious obligation, no less important than any other religious obligation.

For Leibowitz, it was unthinkable that a religious policeman or a religious provider of any essential service would demand to be exempted from his or her responsibilities on Shabbat. To do so was to consign religious Jews to an inferior status in the Jewish homeland and to declare that observant Jews would not take full responsibility for the well-being of the Jewish state. And since in many cases the tasks they would avoid would then be done by other Jews, such conduct was also prohibited by Jewish law, which does not allow a Jew to pass along Sabbath work to another Jew. 

What Leibowitz was proposing was not necessarily “liberal.” He expected the religious parties to oppose all Shabbat activity not considered essential for the operation of the State. But we should compare his fearless iconoclasm to the spineless, ambiguous, and slippery declarations of the Orthodox parties today—and especially the ultra-Orthodox parties. They know that there are things that must be done on Shabbat in the modern State of Israel, but they prefer not to say what exactly is essential and what is not. Something that was essential a week ago may not be essential next week, if enough pressure is exerted by the Haredi press or the Haredi public. And they are content to leave the dirty work of “essential” responsibilities to secular Jews, while their own constituents take refuge in home and synagogue. 

The result is what Leibowitz harshly referred to as “parasitism,” which, thanks to feeble and cowardly ultra-Orthodox leadership, has become the reality today in much of the ultra-Orthodox world.  

It is a world that has no plan for maintaining a modern state in a way that is consistent with Jewish law. It is a world that refuses to encourage the innovative spirit of Jewish tradition. It is a world that drags Israel from religious crisis to religious crisis. It is a world in which observing Shabbat means satisfying your individual concerns while separating yourself from the needs and the problems of the Jewish state in which you reside.  

It is a world, in short, that is prepared to disrupt the lives of a quarter of a million people for its own selfish purposes, and in the process dishonors both Torah and Shabbat.  

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Follow him on Twitter: @EricYoffie