Several recent events—the Olympic Games and the proposal to work on the railway line construction on Shabbat—are excellent opportunities to start a conversation on the role of halacha in the Jewish State. The question is: what form should the conversation take? It should not, I believe, primarily take the form of a formal halachic argument.
Here are some ways in which this conversation might unfold:
- The Innovator speaks: Scholars have noted that in the Rabbinic/Talmudic tradition, legal debate became the formal framework in which almost all matters—legal, moral, metaphysical—were discussed by the rabbis. As the Talmud became adopted as practically binding law (and later increasingly codified), halacha, in all its ramified and minute detail, came to define Jewish reality, so to speak. Any issue – moral or metaphysical—achieved its foothold in reality only to the extent it found expression in some specific halachic practice. This distinctive feature of Rabbinic culture has its advantages and its disadvantages. On the plus side, ideas and issues are not left at the level of vague abstraction or academic debate but are incorporated in quite concrete form into our way of life. On the negative side, the culture risks losing sight of the moral and metaphysical meanings and replacing these with an almost fetishistic attachment to the details of halachic observance.
Regarding Hilchot Shabbat, those within the halachically observant community will be observing the halachot of Shabbat anyway. As for those outside the halachically observant community, aside from the odd baal teshuva here and there, there is little chance that they will come to adopt the ways of halacha in all its stringencies and details, even less so if anyone tries to compel them to do so. The only way to bring Shabbat to the people is to take a step back (from the halachic coal face) and to begin a different kind of conversation, a conversation about the meanings and morals of Shabbat and how those might find expression – in multifarious and unexpected ways – in modern society. Ours is an age of incredible dynamism and change; ideas spread and innovation occurs through the social media; new forms of community and conversation emerge. Once this public conversation gets started secular Israelis will come up with interesting and innovative ways to give expression to the ideas and values inherent in the Biblical notion of Shabbat. When that happens, Israelis will still not be keeping Shabbat in the manner stipulated in the Shulhan Arukh but many of them will choose to find ways to bring Shabbat into their personal lives and into the collective life of the nation.
- The Traditionalist replies: That’s all very well but halacha isn’t a carbon trading scheme. You can’t just trade in Hilchot Shabbat in exchange for some other adopted practice that expresses the “spirit” of Shabbat. Traditions survive because they very sensibly prefer the routine over the ephemeral. They survive because they are embodied in ritual and law. An individual can’t make up his own ritual or law any more than he can make up his own language. The State of Israel—as a Jewish state and not merely a state of the Jews—should respect the traditional laws of Shabbat, at least in its public and symbolic activities.
- An ongoing public, respectful conversation is required in this country to ensure that the conflict between the Innovator and the Traditionalist blossoms into a creative and fruitful tension rather than a stagnant stalemate. In the meantime, all parties should remember that: (a) Religious coercion is counter-productive. (b) Halacha and the halachically-observant community aren’t going anywhere—religious experimentation and innovation aren’t going to bring the house down and should be welcomed and encouraged; the orthodox community will continue observing halacha in its traditional form whatever the rest of the country is doing; (c) Conversation involves a certain loss of control. The outcome is not predictable in advance. Conversation means listening respectfully to the other person and being open to the possibility of discovering hitherto unacknowledged value in the other person’s point of view. That will not be easy for either the Innovator or the Traditionalist. (d) The object of conversation is not to arrive at a new consensus. We live in a pluralistic, liberal and largely secular society; different communities live their lives in different ways and will continue to do so. The objective of conversation is more like trust building; ideally, each side ends up saying about the other, “I disagree with him but I respect his integrity and his point of view.”
Rabbi Cardozo’s argument is that there are ways of weaving at least some awareness of Shabbat into the public awareness, even when Shabbat is being violated in the service of the public. I have to agree that his suggestions sound far more realistic than my imagined conversation between the Traditionalist and the Innovator. It’s true that many secular Israelis are drawn to these kinds of rituals (kiddush etc.) and also true that they are a way of affirming tradition and origin.
The concern, I suppose, is that this isn’t enough. This kind of ritual practice risks becoming merely sentimental. If the idea of Shabbat doesn’t play a more substantive role in our public life, if it doesn’t bear rich cultural meanings beyond the merely sentimental, it will simply die out—and not be deeply mourned.
The larger question: the role of halacha in general in the public life of the State of Israel. There a number of distinct, though overlapping, issues here.
- Israel is a liberal, pluralist, largely secular state. There is no consensus for making halacha part of the State’s legal framework beyond fairly minimal and symbolic expressions (Shabbat and chagim as public holidays etc.).
- Integration of religion into the State bureaucracy produces a religious establishment that is sterile, rotten and corrupt. Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to write about this, but it is plain for all to see. Privatisation of religion produces vibrant and thriving communities; state coercion, the opposite. There’s an American sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, who’s written a lot about this.
- Halacha has long (always?) functioned outside the framework of state enforcement. It functions essentially as a voluntary system, the way of life of a community, sustained by education and acculturation as well as the informal pressures to conformity that operate within a voluntary community (shaming, social ostracism etc.).
- One option is for halacha to operate in Israel as it has always operated elsewhere, as the laws and practices of the halachically-observant community, that lives and perpetuates itself (through education, social pressures etc.) as a self-contained community within the larger liberal polity.
This community (and its way of life) are not, of course, hermetically cut off from the broader society (though the haredim would, perhaps, like it to be). Even secular Jews continue to observe some of the Jewish rituals, go to synagogue every now and then etc., as Yael Valier said, as a way of affirming tradition and origin. But beyond this nod to tribal/religious affiliation, halacha plays little or no role in shaping the public culture—the values, meanings, habits—of the nation as a whole.
- If one has larger ambitions for the Jewish tradition—if one wants to see it playing a role in shaping the public life and public culture of the nation—then it is going to have to speak a new language, it is going to have to inspire an audience that is not predisposed to accept the axioms of the halachic system (for example, that all issues of law and morality are decided though the close, formalistic reading of ancient texts) and is not subject to the pressures of conformity operating within the halachic community.
Most orthodox Jews will not be willing to take this radical step. They will be content for their Jewish lives to continue being bounded by the walls of the halachic community and by halacha to in its traditional form.
One might say: no problem, live and let live. Orthodox Jews will continue to observe halacha in its traditional form, while others will try to create a new kind of Jewish culture that speaks to the realities of the modern world. The problem with this—and now I’m somewhat contradicting what I wrote earlier—is that in this scenario, traditional halacha and the “new Jewish culture” are liable to drift further and further apart. There will be many within the halachic community—perhaps the overwhelmingly large majority—who will disapprove of, and do everything in their power to undermine, the new initiative. Which is just another way of saying that this enterprise is not risk-free nor guaranteed success.
- Specifically regarding Israeli participation in the (goyische naches) Olympic Games, one thought: We live in an era of economic, and therefore cultural, globalization. The two are inseparable. When a country opens its borders to economic exchange, it also opens them to cultural exchange. We should not be over-hasty in lamenting this. For one thing, it’s inevitable, there’s no turning back (unless we want to become a second North Korea) so we’d better get used to it. For another, globalization, international trade, international migration and cultural exchange result in—besides the obvious economic benefits—increasing acknowledgement of our common humanity, and reductions in violence and warfare. This is argued at great length by Steven Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. I don’t claim expertise in these matters and I don’t know if there are serious counter-arguments regarding the supposed benefits of globalization. My point is simply that if the Jewish tradition is going to come to terms with modern political life it will have to come to terms also with the fact of globalization. The old model (fiction?) of עם לבדד ישכון, that “Torah-true Judaism” (as Artscroll likes to call it) is a self-contained system that operates self-sufficiently, free of all external influence just won’t work in the modern world (assuming, again, that Jewish tradition wishes to engage with the modern world).
It is also unquestionably true that one of the effects of cultural globalization is creeping cultural homogeneity, blandness, triviality and the diffusion of values that we thoroughly disapprove of. There is no remedy for this ill other than to try to counter it by producing cultural works—works of religion, law, ethics, literature, art, philosophy, works of the imagination – that engage and inspire a popular audience with the values of our tradition.