Standing Still and Moving On

The very names of this week's Torah portions show that Israel's chief rabbis fail to understand their role as legal interpreters

BY: Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Reprinted by permission from the website of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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 1880s--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 (


) on Passover. (This allowed Jewish farmers to continue to farm the land on the sabbatical year, since the law applies only to Jewish-owned land in Israel.) The circumvention won the approval of the revered first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, but never that of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox in Palestine who were part of the old


--settlement in Palestine--and bitter anti-Zionists.

A few months ago, the current head of this


--ultra-Orthodox--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


(kosher) 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 continuing sale of kibbutz land for housing, there would be enormous deleterious consequences to imposing the laws of


(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


(Jewish legal) integrity and communal responsibility.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, many soldiers caught in tanks disabled by gunfire suffered severe burns. Yet, because of halakic 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 haredim enjoy an almost total grip on the local rabbinate, divorce courts, and religious councils, not to speak of the chief rabbis themselves.

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