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Of shmitah and chief rabbis

Jewish Theological Seminary
September 21, 2000

Over the summer, world Jewry was treated to the latest spectacle of moral bankruptcy by the Israeli chief rabbinate. The year 5761, which begins with Rosh Hashana, will mark the onset of yet another sabbatical year, during which the land in Israel, though not that in the Diaspora, is to lie fallow. Since the earliest days of the Lovers of Zion, the forerunners of the Zionist movement in the 1880's, the practice had been to sell the land of the new settlements to a non-Jew, much as is still done today with the sale of leaven (chametz) on Passover.

The circumvention won the approval of the revered first Ashkenazi chief rabbi after the Balfour Declaration, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, but never that of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox in Palestine who were part of the old yishuv and bitter anti-Zionists.

A few months ago, the current head of this charedi sector, one Rabbi Eliyashiv, reiterated his uncompromising view and threatened to excommunicate Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron, the Sephardi chief rabbi, if he persisted in his support of the practice. He also warned that he would withdraw his kashrut certification from any establishment that would serve Israeli-grown produce. This time, less than a month before Rosh Hashana, Bakshi-Doron caved in, announcing that he could not endure the pain of being ostracized by his own people.

I can understand the chief rabbi's personal anguish. What I can't forgive is the action he took to alleviate it. Instead of resigning his office, he preferred to throw the country into turmoil. Despite the decline in farming and the sale of kibbutz land for housing, there would be enormous deleterious consequences to imposing the laws of shmita (sabbatical year) on the agricultural sector of the Israeli economy. Yet rather than disqualify himself from office, Bakshi-Doron placed his own welfare above that of the nation. Overtly he never acknowledged acting on the merits of Eliyashiv's case but only in fear of his retribution. A threat of religious terrorism had made a sham of halachic integrity and communal responsibility.

Had the Ashkenazi chief army chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, suffered from the same failure of nerve back in 1968 at the sinking of the Israeli submarine Dakar somewhere in the Mediterranean, he would have infinitely compounded the tragedy for the widows left behind as agunot (chained women), because there were no witnesses to confirm the death of their husbands. To his lasting credit, he was moved by the enormity of the calamity to immediately find a halachic way to release them for remarriage at some future date.

Similarly, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 many soldiers caught in tanks disabled by gunfire suffered severe burns. Yet because of halachic impediments, Israel had failed to develop the skin banks to facilitate their treatment and recovery. In the wake of public fury, the chief rabbinate quickly overcame its scruples to permit their creation.

What has transpired since is the gradual takeover of the far flung domain of the chief rabbinate, originally envisioned as the religious partner of the Zionists in the formation of a Jewish state, by the ultra-Orthodox descendants of the old yishuv, now vastly enlarged by government largesse and funding from abroad. Today the charedim enjoy an almost total grip on the local rabbinate, divorce courts and religious councils, not to speak of the chief rabbis themselves.

In consequence, the application of halacha to Israeli life has lost whatever flexibility and responsiveness normally inhered in the system. Halachic intransigence in the face of the immigration of Jews from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union trampled the interests of the state. The former were made to endure the humiliation of a symbolic conversion while the latter were subjected to a protracted period of study suitable only for a handful. Thus the craven deportment of Bakshi-Doron comes as no surprise. From a halachic perspective, the old yishuv has trumped the new.

The reason for my sad tale is the title of this week's double parasha: two contrasting verbs of standing still (nitzavim) and moving on (va-yelech). The covenant with God that Israel entered into at the end of Moses's life on the eastern banks of the Jordan was to be truly lasting, binding on the living who were present as well as on the unborn for generations to come. To span such diversity and longevity the covenant had to be endowed with both firmness and fluidity, stasis and growth, unchanging texts and ever new interpretations. The Torah would abound with polarities in balance: law and prophecy, halacha and aggada, a written foundation and an unwritten superstructure. Like any living organism, it needed to exhibit the dual capacity to preserve and accommodate, to reject and absorb, to turn inward and open outward.

The Talmud caught this unique combination of continuity and dynamism in a bold flight of rabbinic imagination. When Moses ascended to heaven to receive the Torah, he found God laboriously adorning its letters with minute graphic designs. Impatiently, he asked about the purpose of all the extra work. Were the letters and words not enough to convey the Torah's contents? By no means, God said. Someday a scholar by the name of Akiva ben Yosef would generate a pile of new laws by interpreting every single calligraphic stroke. Moses asked if he might witness him in action.

Transported to Akiva's academy in second-century Palestine, Moses found himself flummoxed by the debate. His own Torah had become unrecognizable. Suddenly a student challenged R. Akiva on a specific point: How in fact do you know this to be the case? It is a tradition that goes back to Moses at Sinai, he retorted, allaying Moses' consternation as well (B.T. Menahot 29b).

How far have the charedim and their minions in the chief rabbinate deviated from this twofold conception of Torah! All freedom of interpretation has been drained from the system. Everything is immutable. Only stasis and stagnation remain, creating a culture of abject poverty and extreme economic dependence. Bakshi-Doron's failure to resign will surely accelerate the dismantling of the chief rabbinate. Only then can Judaism in Israel regain the vitality that comes with reverence for the whole Torah.

Dr. Ismar Schorsch is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Jewish university committed to promoting Jewish learning for all, and the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism.

© Jewish Theological Seminary, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission


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