How Israel's Rabbis Missed the Train

Once, there were Orthodox rabbis who understood the necessity of adapting religion to the needs of a sovereign Jewish state. Today they can barely be heard.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Israel Railway train, 2014.
An Israel Railway train, 2014.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Toward the end of the 19th century, when Jewish agriculture resumed in the land of Israel, after a hiatus of nearly 1,800 years, the mainly religious farmers were faced with the dilemma of how to continue working the land during shmita, the seventh year when the Torah demands no farming take place. Some left their fields untended, others found rabbis who were prepared to come up with halakhic stratagems to continue farming. One of the most controversial of those devices was the heter mekhira, literally a release-by-sale. It was conditional and temporary sale of the agricultural land to a non-Jew, thereby exempting the land from the strictures of shmita.

Many rabbis at the time opposed heter mekhira, due to its shaky sources and long list of detractors. They certainly were against a wholesale sale of the land for a year in order to allow all farmers to work and at most were willing to consider it in isolated cases of great need. One of those early opponents was a young local rabbi in Latvia, Avraham Yitzhak Kook. But in 1904, Kook was appointed rabbi of Jaffa and the young agricultural settlements. Visiting the farms, which were still struggling to make it in what was then a backwater of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, he changed his views and realized that the heter mekhira was necessary. If the farmers would not be allowed to work on the seventh year, their life’s work would be destroyed, or an irrevocable split would occur between rabbinical Judaism and the young pioneers, which to Kook, who believed the return to the land was the fulfillment of the prophecies of redemption, was just as bad.

His ultra-Orthodox colleagues in the old yishuv in Jerusalem and back in the yeshivas of eastern Europe fought Kook tooth and nail on heter mekhira but he stood by his ruling and continued to publicize it when he returned after t World War I to serve as the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael or Mandatory Palestine. The shmita controversy between rival groups of rabbis never receded, however, and it is played out over and over again every seven years.

Rav Kook died in 1935, thirteen years before the establishment of the state, but in his championing of the heter mekhira, he laid the foundations for a new field of halakha (rabbinical law) — hilkhot medina, laws pertaining to the running of a Jewish state. Judaism had developed in exile since the end of Jewish sovereignty with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and was appropriate for individuals, families and small local communities. Now it had to evolve to fit the requirements of a modern nation-state. For the ultra-Orthodox such a concept was anathema. There was nothing holy in their view about a state founded by secular Jews, without commitment to the laws of the Torah and the rulings of the rabbis, and anyway, halakha is eternal and can never be changed.

The next great pioneer of hilkhot medina was Shlomo Goren, the first chief military rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. He reached a series of agreements with prime minister and defense minister David Ben –Gurion, that the army would be a place where all Israelis could serve. There would be synagogues on every base but no one would be obligated to visit them (many of the first officers in the IDF remembered how in the British army during World War II, church on Sunday had been compulsory). Kitchens and canteens would be kosher and supervised by Goren’s soldiers, rabbis would be in charge of identifying soldiers’ bodies and bringing them to rest and the army would not carry out unessential missions on Shabbat, though soldiers could do as they liked in their own quarters.

Major-General Rabbi Goren combined deep halakhic learning with keen political instincts and an understanding of the IDF’s needs from actually having spent time on the battlefield. He knew how to adapt ancient strictures to modern warfare and understood when he had to be flexible. His basic rule that whatever is “operational” can and must be carried out on Shabbat, remains true to this day. The Haredi rabbis hated Goren. They saw him as someone who perverted halakha for the needs of the secular generals and politicians. But for the 24 years in which he was chief military rabbi they had no power to intervene in any of his rulings in the IDF, which to them was foreign territory. Just like Rav Kook did for Jewish agriculture, Rabbi Goren enabled the largest and most essential of Israel’s organizations to be a place where religious and secular Jews could work and live together.

Kook and Goren understood that in a modern society and economy in which religious Jews are in a minority, halakha must be adapted if it is to remain at all relevant. Haredim accused them of heresy and acting like "Reformim," (which is how they refer to Reform Jews, purposely omitting "Jews"), but they believed that Jewish sovereignty meant that the halakhic landscape had changed. It wasn’t a perversion of rabbinical law, just a recognition that the new state had special status, just as the kings of Judea and Israel have in the Talmud.

So where did it go wrong? Why did the government allow Haredi rabbis last week to overrule it and prevent necessary rail infrastructure work from being carried out on Shabbat? The obvious explanation is of course the political power of their parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas — which is enough to endanger the coalition. But that doesn’t answer the question of why there are no great rabbis standing up to them, in the name of hilkhot medina.

A long line of people waiting for a bus in Haifa after train lines were halted due to political pressure over rail repair on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, September 3, 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

There are still followers of Kook and Goren. David Stav, rabbi of the town of Shoham and chairman of the Tzohar rabbis movement, said this week that “just as the army and police can operate on Shabbat, so can a modern rail network. You just have to find a way." But Stav has no political party behind him and three years ago failed to get elected as Chief Rabbi, losing to David Lau, a soft-spoken and spineless tool of the Haredi leadership.

Why did the practitioners of hilkhot medina lose their influence?

There could have been a third great pioneer of hilkhot medina, potentially the greatest. Unlike Kook who dabbled as a young man in Greek philosophy and Goren who had studied at the Hebrew University and served as a soldier in the ranks, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had no first-hand experience of secular life or learning. He grew up in the religious working-class neighborhoods of 1930s Jerusalem and his first rabbinical job, in cosmopolitan 1940s Cairo, was an abject failure when he tried and inevitably failed to foist his own Haredi standards on the local community.

Banished from Egypt, Rav Ovadia found himself in a newly established Israel. He went back to his books for the next two decades and came up with Torath Eretz Yisrael — the Torah of the land of Israel — which was based on the rulings of Rabbi Yosef Karo in Safed 450 years earlier. There was an element of megalomania in his harkening back to his illustrious namesake, but Ovadia Yosef saw it as a basis for a new halakhic codex for a modern Israel and set about writing the most comprehensive compendium of responsa in the history of Jewish literature.

In 1979, by now the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yosef arrived at the annual conference of the Rav Kook Institute in Jerusalem to deliver the keynote lecture. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat had just signed the Camp David peace accords and Rav Ovadia had prepared an address on halakha and peace. Most of his listeners belonged to the camp staunchly opposed to Israel’s retreat from Sinai as part of the agreement. But he wasn’t about to pander to them. “If the commanders of the army, along with the members of the government, decide there is a danger of immediate war with the Arab neighbors and if returning the territories to them will remove the danger of war and there are chances of an existing peace, it seems that according to all opinion it is permissible to return territories of Eretz Yisrael to achieve this objective because nothing is above pikuach nefesh (saving a life)." His ruling was emphatic — “we must not rely on miracles and enter war with cruel enemies, so we must return the territories, be rid of them."

Under attack

The rabbis of the religious Zionist camp, followers of Rav Kook and his teachings, and also Yosef’s colleague, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Goren, attacked him furiously. Sinai and every other piece of land controlled by Israel were holy and must not be relinquished. The non-ultra-Orthodox, who believed in the sanctity of the state, had by that point been swept up by the messianic fervor of settling the hills of Judea and Samaria, captured from Jordan in 1967. Any retreat from the territories, their rabbis ruled, would be an unthinkable retreat in the process of divine redemption which was at the core of the Jewish state. But it was actually Ovadia Yosef who had stayed true to the principles of hilkhot medina. He had ruled that it was the job of the government and military experts to decide what was in the nation’s interest and that the rabbis had to provide the halakhic foundations for the state’s decisions, not the other way around.

He may have been a fiery orator and fearless writer but as a leader, Rav Ovadia was easily cowed by determined opponents and waylaid by wily disciples. His voice was drowned out then in 1979 and again in 1984 when, after leaving the Chief Rabbinate, he gave his patronage to the new Sephardi Haredi party, Shas, and allowed his party’s representatives, chiefly Arye Dery, to pull the party in an utra-Orthodox and right-wing direction. Political considerations squelched the emergence of Yosef as the great codifier of Jewish law of statehood and most of the rabbis from the religious Zionist camp, who had been brought up on the writings of Rav Kook, sanctified shlemut ha’aretz (integrity of the land) over the sovereignty of the government. Kook’s followers abandoned his principles and became simply nationalist Haredim.

Which brings us to the latest coalition crisis over infrastructure work on Shabbat. Save for a few lone voices like Rabbi Stav, the various religious leaders have lost the tools needed to work in a sovereign state with a modern economy. The tragedy is that when enlightenment came along over two centuries ago, ushering in its wake the emancipation of Jews and the competing ideologies of liberalism, socialism, capitalism, communism, feminism and most crucially Zionism, Orthodox Judaism went into reverse mode. Halakha, which always adapted to changing environments, was suddenly set in stone. Whether it was the sanctity of Shabbat or the fate of northern Samaria, it all mattered more than the larger national interest. Haredi or Orthodox Judaism is ancient “loyal” Judaism, as its practitioners claim. It is a reaction to modernity, the calcification of Jewish thought.

What BenGurion never imagined

When, in 1947, BenGurion promised the Haredi leadership that the official organs of the new state would not work on Shabbat — the arrangement which became known as “the status quo of state and religion" — it was a necessary act of political expediency. He needed to ensure that every major Jewish community would support Jewish statehood. But it was beyond politics; he specifically stated as prime minister that he didn’t believe in separating state and religion. He lived a secular life but saw the Jewish heritage and the partnership with religious Jews as fundamental. But he also would have expected that the religion would, as it had always done in the past, adapt to new circumstances. Which is why it was easy for him as defense minister to work with a rabbi like Goren on ensuring that that was the case within the IDF.

Kook and Goren and Yosef were not alone. There have been other major rabbis over the last two centuries who have been capable of adapting to the concept of a nation-state. One was Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, commonly known by the acronym Netziv. Dean of Volozhin, regarded as the “mother of yeshivas," Berlin died in Warsaw in 1893. In his biblical commentary, Haemek Davar, he wrote that “matters which relate to the commonwealth are pikuach nefesh and overrule (the Torah’s) commandment." Politics and nationalism have since drowned out these authentic Jewish voices of reason.

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