Opinion

Jewish Values Are Nice, but What Are You Prepared to Pay for Them?

Israeli politicians shield Jewish values and Israelis mushily sort of agree, but enforcement is costing billions of shekels a year

A woman walks past a light train construction site in Tel Aviv on August 23, 2017.
Moti Milrod

We’ve been treated, or perhaps burdened, in the last few days with two expressions of what it means to be a Jew in Israel.

The first and most infamous came from Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Labor Party, who said that the left “forgot what it means to be Jewish.” But the probably more consequential broadside arrived from Yaakov Litzman, the ultra-Orthodox health minister, objecting to plans to perform railway maintenance work on the Sabbath, which he termed “a serious blow to traditions of Israel and the value of sanctifying Shabbat.”

People on the left slammed Gabbay for his remarks, in effect confirming his point. The most extreme insisted that Judaism should not be contributing to Israel’s national life in the first place, and that our values should be informed by liberal humanism. But the mainstream response was more a mushy compromise, saying that Torah and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are basically on the same page.

“There is no contradiction between Judaism and liberal values, and not all Jews are willing to bow down to the ultra-Orthodox or religious-Zionist version of Judaism,” Meretz party leader Zehava Galon tweeted.  Gabbay himself tried to perform the same acrobatics, saying a few days later that “all liberal values are based in Judaism.”

If it were only so simple. The corpus of religious literature stretches out of 2,500 or more years and encompasses a confusingly wide range of views, some of which have become more mainstream than others in our time.

Liberals can easily point to traditional Judaism’s stress on equality before the law, the rudiments of a welfare state and restraints on the free market, its recognition of our common humanity and its culture of open debate.

On the other hand, there are plenty of things that are not liberal at all. Women are not accorded equal status with men, gay sex is forbidden, personal choice is severely constricted, and community values are paramount. For every statement favoring universalism, there is another championing Jewish particularism.

But Litzman’s remarks on Shabbat point to the real dilemma of observing “Jewish values,” namely that the rabbis were far more interested in keeping the commandants than in ideology.

The dilemma of observance

Among left-leaning American Jews, the concept of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) has become the 11th Commandment and carte blanche to freely identify Judaism with social action, environmentalism and democracy. But the traditional view of tikkun olam saw observing the commandments as paramount: Given the choice of joining the March for Racial Justice or observing Yom Kippur, as was the case this year, it would have been a no-brainer for Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, who dealt at great length with the concept of tikkun olam. The Day of Atonement prevails.

The public observance of Shabbat and kashrut are supreme Jewish values, and Litzman (unintentionally) presented Gabbay and everyone who wants to find a comfort zone between liberalism and Judaism with a serious dilemma.

Shabbat and kashrut severely constrain individual freedom and they are undemocratic. If put to a vote, maybe most Israelis would vote in favor, but certainly not in Tel Aviv, where the ultra-Orthodox parties are trying to override a local law allowing groceries to open on Shabbat.

These values bear a huge economic cost. Kashrut observance costs the economy 3 billion shekels ($850 million) a year and shutting down public transportation, factories and stores on Shabbat and holidays costs many times that. The only defense of it, to the majority of Israelis who are nonobservant, is that it is a Jewish tradition, even a value, to put aside one day a week for rest.

Unfortunately, Judaism in Israel has become a duopoly of ultra-Orthodox who see nothing but the minutiae of Jewish law in its most extreme form, and the religious right, which has degraded Jewish values into an extremist nationalism, little different from France’s National Front except for the color of the flag it waves. For the rest, Judaism is ignored as a lot of ritual mumbo jumbo and superstitious taboos.

But Jewish values can play a part in public discourse. As anyone listening to all of Gabbay’s speech last week would know, he was talking not about observing mitzvot or building settlements, but restoring the place of Jewish values in public life as common property of all Israelis (or at least the Jewish ones).

That’s no simple task and it certainly can’t be done by a politician. Only religious scholars can take the jumble of ideas that have come down over the centuries and hammer them into values that speak to Jews in our era.

Doing so doesn’t have to involve breaking with tradition because one of its beauties is how malleable it is, even if the ultra-Orthodox have created the myth that they represent the same faith practiced by Abraham on down. To the contrary, there is a telling tradition about no one less than Moses being brought by God into a house of study centuries after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai.

Moses fails to understand a word of a discourse on Jewish law being given by Rabbi Akiva, who gave innovative interpretations of biblical texts. When the students asked Akiva about the source for his interpretation, he replied, “A law [given] to Moses on Sinai.” Far from being angered about words seemingly being put in his mouth, the prophet was becalmed.