Culture, Israel, Politics, Religion

Heter, shmetter

A recent essay in the JPost by Isi Leibler writes how the Orthodox in Israel have become triumphalist and how the voices of moderation have become extremely eroded, to the point where decisions made by halachic greats a generation or two ago are now no longer stringent enough.
OK, so far, not news.

However, today the voices of moderation are silent. Zealotry has become the order of the day.
THE DECLINE of moderation can be traced to the influence of haredi teachers employed in national-religious educational institutions. That coincided with a trend among Israeli rabbis to compete with one another in demonstrating greater stringency in halachic interpretation of ritual observance: for example, the enforcement of stricter separation between the sexes and even attempts to impose a broad application of kol isha – prohibiting men from listening to women sing or act.
A more bizarre example was the promulgation of an edict for kohanim flying in aircraft over cemeteries to seal themselves in body bags in order not to be defiled.
Of course, religious texts can usually be unearthed to justify just about any exotic or stringent prohibition. But the application of extreme “piety” in ritual observance was traditionally an option for the individual, not an edict imposed on the entire people.
Furthermore, without exception, whenever observance conflicted with critical social and economic issues, our sages creatively reinterpreted Halacha to find acceptable solutions. Today this no longer applies, because many rabbis, isolated in yeshivot, have scant contact with people in everyday life and are unconcerned about the impact of their more stringent interpretations.

He points out that this tendency is exemplified by the Chief Rabbinate, “which has been effectively hijacked by haredim who nevertheless reject its authority as an extension of the Zionist state.”

As an example he offers:

This has manifested itself in inflexible responses to central problems such as conversion and other halachic issues related to the state. The latest and possibly most explosive crisis relates to shmita – the biblical injunction requiring land owned by Jews in Eretz Israel to remain fallow every seventh year. Under haredi pressure, the Chief Rabbinate authorized local rabbinical authorities to withdraw kashrut certification from restaurants purchasing their vegetables from farmers adopting the heter mechira – a halachic device approved a century ago by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, providing for the fictitious sale of land to non-Jews in order to comply with requirements of the shmita year.

he states that something must be done quickly:

If the decision by the current Chief Rabbinate is not revoked, it will have catastrophic economic consequences for Israeli farmers, consumers and the entire nation….The state must legislate that all haredi school children are obliged to undergo core educational curriculum requirements, as is the case with their counterparts throughout the Diaspora.
Instead of indulging in shady political deals and providing concessions to anti-Zionist groups, the government should ensure that state funds for religious functionaries and institutions be directed toward the moderate and Zionist sectors of the religious community.
In order to break the increasing stranglehold of haredim on religious institutions, national-religious moderates need to be at the vanguard of those protesting against the imposition of haredi standards on the entire nation.
Most importantly, they must support the empowering of moderate rabbis like Rabbi Yosef Carmel, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and others who have courageously expressed a willingness to lead a revolt against the Chief Rabbinate in relation to their handling of shmita and parallel issues. But they cannot succeed without public support.
As Rabbi Lau says, “It is unacceptable for rabbis to scream while the public remains apathetic.”
The potentially catastrophic repercussions of the shmita crisis on the state should act as a catalyst for exchanging the current, haredi-controlled religious leadership for responsible, moderate rabbis, attuned to the people and motivated by a genuine desire to harmonize the application of Halacha with the national interest.

Similarly, Arutz Sheva (!) reported today that the Knesset is threatening to revoke the Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction over kashrut certification for produce during the shmitta year (i.e. this year) and will put in place an alternative of tis own choosing. This is because of the above mentioned problem of the chief rabbinate refusing to recognize heter mechira and a number of local rabbis joining the hareidim who are refusing to use this perfectly legitimate solution.
Now, if only we could get the Israeli government to care this much about conversion by halachic but not hareidi authorities, agunot still suffering despite several good solutions created by the Orthodox authorities but abandoned by them because Masorti authorities decided to use them, and whether animals schechted without concern for their suffering at big corporate “kosher” slaughterhouses can by any stretchof the imagination still be considered kosher. Then we’d have something.
Addendum 9/26 According to Ha’aretz, although some Sephardic rabbis have joined with the Ashkenazim against the heter mechira, Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who is the son of the Shas party leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef,(Re: the elder Rav Yosef, I have to admit that despite some of his weirder claims and unpleasant statements, his position on women, and a few other random oddities, I feel compelled against my will to admire) gave permission to use it.
“Rabbinical sources were quoted as saying approval of the procedure was a ‘declaration of war on the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.'”

13 thoughts on “Heter, shmetter

  1. We should worry about haredi influence in Israel?
    We can’t even stop the haredi influence in our PUBLIC SCHOOLS in the U.S. of A.
    Oh…the joke’s on us.

  2. All this may be true – and the way to handle is for the disconnected to become more religious on reasonable terms, that will act as a counterbalance to extremism.

  3. Huh? I’m a public school teacher in the USA. What Haredi? The only Jews I know from work are the typical moderate-to-liberal-to-progressive Jews who are there because we believe in public education.

  4. DK is talking about the Jewish Student Unions, which are the public school arm of NCSY (they’re not in every public school, but in many public schools in heavily-Jewish areas). While NCSY is officially modern orthodox, there is a strong haredi influence in it, and when a secular kid decides to go orthodox, NCSY tends to guide them on a path that is far more haredi than any modern orthodox family would want for their kid.
    You can read DK’s extensive rantings on the subject at

  5. halachic but not hareidi
    This frame is a losing battle. Either the state gets out of the business of defining “halachic”, or it bows to those who hold that “halachic but not hareidi” is an oxymoron.

  6. I see. I teach in one of those urban school districts where there are a lot of Jews on faculty and few Jewish students– very similar to the school district which I attended.

  7. BZ wrote,
    “This frame is a losing battle. Either the state gets out of the business of defining “halachic”, or it bows to those who hold that “halachic but not hareidi” is an oxymoron.”
    This is an interesting statement, and indeed, it seems to be working like that. But why should it work like that, BZ?

  8. Because Conservative and liberal Orthodox Jews (cf. Women of the Wall) are the only people in the world who think that 1) they are halachic (in the sense of “valid”, though i don’t like using the word that way), and 2) Reform (or whoever they’re trying to distinguish themselves from) isn’t. The Chief Rabbinate is never going to wake up one day and say “You know, I may not agree with Conservative Judaism, but at least it’s halachic.”

  9. I meant that the Chief Rabbinate is under state control, and they couldn’t simply appoint “Zionist-religious” (MO) rabbis if they wanted to? The MO have way more numbers and support than the Israeli Reform or the wallflowers (sorry…couldn’t stop myself despite irrelevancy to topic).

  10. DK (and BZ): since the Rabbinate is under state control, it will always be affected by the current state of the coalition. The Haredim have more political power (becuase the “halakhic but not haredi” crowd has been voting for secular parties for about 20 years now), so they will get the good jobs – including the rabbinate.
    Add to that the fact that there are set terms for the chief rabbis and its not such a great thing to be one, you get stooges like Metzger filling the empty slots.

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