Feiler Faster

As the discussion on Beliefnet the last week suggests, the Religious Right clearly seems to be a definitional moment in the United States. Part of it is the parade of sex scandals in recent months. Part of it is the political overreach in Washington. Part of it is the decision the Republican Party faces whether it will nominate its two leading contenders — a Mormon or pro-life, double-divorcee. Part of it’s the backlash against religious extremism brought on by the Bush presidency, 9-11, and the obduracy of Iraq and Iran.
But maybe it’s not just the Religious Right here. Two articles caught my eye in the last week about the Religious Right in Israel, the growing demographic bloc of Hasidic Jews who are ambivalent about politics and Israel but deeply devoted to Judaism. The two articles are not related, yet they hint at the same thing.
First, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the influence of the rabbinate in a dispute over whether farmers were required to follow the biblical mandate to allow fields to remain fallow every seventh year.

The case centered on a loophole in religious law used to allow Jewish-owned farms to grow and sell kosher produce every seventh year, when the Bible says that Jewish land in Israel should be left fallow. The Biblical injunction about the sabbatical, or “shmita” year, is taken literally by many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, who refuse to buy or consume produce unless it is grown by non-Jews on land not owned by Jews.
In the past, the chief rabbinate, which controls kosher regulations in Israel, accepted a compromise or loophole called “heter mechira,” or sale permit. The permit allows Jewish farmers and businesses to “sell” their land formally and temporarily to non-Jews during shmita years, enabling the land to be worked as usual.
But with the increased influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews on the chief rabbinate, this year the policy changed. The rabbinate authorized heter mechira, as in the past, but then said that local rabbinical councils could decide for themselves whether to accept it.
In cities like Jerusalem, where the ultra-Orthodox make up almost a third of the total population, and a much larger proportion of the Jewish population, heter mechira was not allowed, and prices for produce were rising while Jewish agribusiness was suffering.
Tzohar, a group of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, had challenged the ruling and said that its members would authorize heter mechira produce in cities where the local rabbis would not, an obvious threat to the authority of the chief rabbinate.
In its ruling on Wednesday, the court said the chief rabbinate would not be allowed to provide local autonomy to rabbis because such a practice could cause significant harm to Israel’s farmers and the public at large.

The second article is about the growing economic might of the religious conservatives in Israel, when companies are catering to their buying power. But the opening anecdote of Steven Erlanger’s article in the NYT shows the silliness at work here, where the phone company profits from the sins of the consumer who choses to use his phone on Saturday. The only penalty is a higher fee.

When Larry Pinczower switches on his cellphone, the seal of a rabbinate council appears. Unable to send text messages, take photographs or connect to the Internet, his phone is a religiously approved adaptation to modernity by the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli life.
More than 10,000 numbers for phone sex, dating services and the like are blocked, and rabbinical overseers ensure that the lists are up to date. Calls to other kosher phones are less than 2 cents a minute, compared with 9.5 cents for normal phones. But on the Sabbath any call costs $2.44 a minute, a steep religious penalty.
“You pay less and you’re playing by the rules,” Mr. Pinczower, 39, said. “You’re using technology but in a way that maintains religious integrity.”
A community of at least 800,000 people — out of 5.4 million Jews living in Israel, a country of 7.1 million — the ultra-Orthodox, though comparatively poor, form a distinct, growing and important market, and Israeli companies are paying attention. While there are rabbinical strictures against watching television, using computers for leisure, immodest attire and unsupervised mixing of men and women, the Israeli market economy has adjusted in creative and surprising ways.
Some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work regular jobs, preferring religious study. More than 50 percent live below the poverty line and get state allowances, compared with 15 percent of the rest of the population, and most families have six or seven children, said Momi Dahan, an economist at the School of Public Policy at Hebrew University.
But because they live in tight communities like this one, and obey their rabbis, they have significant power in the marketplace, as well as in the voting booth, said Rafi Melnick, dean of the Lauder School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.

Is there a connection to the U.S.? Maybe not, but somehow I hear a similar echo: When religious leaders declare their disinterest in all matters political in favor of matters divine, but then go behind the scenes and try to manipulate the political and economic process to serve their ends, they run the risk of appearing before their adherents as stoking the political process just to preserve their own power.

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