Residents of Tel Aviv have demanded the right to make use of the city’s bicycle rental service, Tel-O-Fun, on Yom Kippur. Last Friday the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality responded, saying the service would provide bikes for Yom Kippur. It specified that the bikes must be rented before sundown on Yom Kippur Eve and could only be returned at the conclusion of this holy day, during the following night.
In response, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) threatened to cut off funding for the bicycle rental project, saying that the operating of the Tel-O-Fun project on Yom Kippur “is crossing a red line and breaking all the norms.”
Upon reading this story, I immediately thought back to an observation I heard from television personality-turned-politician Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party. Yair, himself non-observant but a believer in God and very respectful to our heritage, pointed to the fact that the law prohibiting the public sale of leavened bread (hametz) on Passover is widely ignored by Israelis. The same applies to the laws regarding pork in this country, a law which many violate. However, everyone in Israel respects Yom Kippur and no one drives on that day. Why do people violate the bread rule on Passover and the laws regarding pork but refrain from driving on Yom Kippur?
Lapid suggested that the explanation is simple: there is no law prohibiting driving on Yom Kippur; It is simply a demonstration of respect. The moment there is a governmental law demanding religious observance, people feel coerced and have an instinct to violate it. No one wants to be forced into any specific practice in life.
And now, a government minister is trying to make receipt of government funding contingent on not making bikes available for use on Yom Kippur. Let me be very clear: Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, and my family and I fast and spend the entire day in synagogue. I would never ride a bike on this sacred day, and it saddens me that not all Jews were raised and educated to spend the day exclusively focused on the spiritual.
But what right do we have to force others to refrain from spending the day as they choose? This is especially the case when Yom Kippur is known as the day when secular Israelis avoid driving and instead ride their bikes. And it is even more disturbing when we consider that the Tel Aviv municipality is actually respecting the day by saying that it won’t actively rent out the bikes on Yom Kippur. Do we really want the government to mandate whether people can or cannot have bikes to use on Yom Kippur?
Religious coercion of this kind clearly ignores the most basic sources in our tradition. The Bible implores us to “choose” the correct path in life. This notion of “choosing” – “behira,” in Hebrew – is one of the most fundamental Jewish tenets. Throughout our history, there have always been religious people who sought to inspire fellow Jews who were less observant. As an educator, I certainly found myself in that role with my students, and as an author, all of my books seek to motivate our youth to be more spiritual.
But this was always based on the principle in “Ethics of the Fathers” of “develop many disciples,” as opposed to “force your way on others.” Pulling government funding for a service which enables people to ride bikes on Yom Kippur is “forcing your way on others” and this kind of religious coercion is simply not the Jewish way. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained in the late 20th century, the term “religious coercion” is actually an oxymoron since no religious act can be coerced and maintain any religious significance for the one performing the act.
This obviously opens a door to the complicated issue of religion and state in Israel. On the one hand, the very concept of an official government rabbinate that governs life-cycle events or laws against public transportation on Shabbat seems to serve as a classic example of religious coercion. According to the sources quoted above, people should be free to choose to be religious or not without the government mixing into the issue at all. People should similarly be free to choose which rabbi and traditions they want as part of their religious observance, and not have these imposed on them by their government.
The hatred, strife, and polarization caused by these laws, and the fact that people circumvent the laws of marriage and divorce anyway, led then-Israeli chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi Doron to declare in a Techumin magazine interview in 2004 that there is no longer a place in Israel for the religion ministry and local religious councils. Simply put, there should be separation of religion from government.
On the other hand, Israel is a Jewish state. What makes it a Jewish state? Is it Jewish simply because a majority of its inhabitants are Jews? Don’t there have to be other defining characteristics to make it a Jewish state? Isn’t this the basis for the “status quo” arrangement in which marriage, divorce, and other life cycle events are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Services? Isn’t this the justification for the general attitude, expressed so clearly by Minister Katz, of using government funding as a mechanism to police religious issues, including withholding bicycle rentals on Yom Kippur?
As an Orthodox Jew who passionately believes in the truth of my way of life, I would love to see a country where all Jews experience life-cycle events and live the way I do. However, I must have the intellectual honesty to say that laws dictating that all life-cycle events in the country be done in a religious, Orthodox manner constitute religious coercion. Using the threat of pulling government funding to “preserve the sanctity of the day,” while infringing on people’s rights to spend the day as they choose is no different. And it must stop.
Many things can be done to secure the state’s Jewish identity without coercion. Maintaining Shabbat as the official government day of rest certainly accomplishes that. The same goal is achieved with all government events being kosher, the Israeli army serving only kosher food, and the distribution of bibles to soldiers at IDF initiation ceremonies. Increasing the amount of Bible and heritage studies in the public school system would help define who we are and connect students to Judaism without forcing religious practice.
We could increase the Jewish nature of the country if leaders who believe in God would actually mention God. The United States of America is the prime example in the world of separation of church and state but that does not stop every president from concluding speeches with the words “May God Bless America.” These simple words present no threat of religious coercion but are packed with meaning and define a country. We must do the same in Israel.
Finally, attempting to strengthen Judaism through legislation and threatening to cut funding actually has the reverse effect: it is destroying us as a nation. The Talmudic principle that forcing people to practice a certain way actually discourages them is on open display throughout our country. The laws and policies related to religious practice are leading thousands of young Israelis to turn their backs on any connection to Judaism and Israel. They want no part of a country which legislates how they should experience the most important moments of their lives, and have no desire to connect to rabbis who they feel are making unreasonable demands, especially in the marriage process.
Taking away their ability to rent a bike for Yom Kippur, the holy day which most secular Israelis already respect by refraining from driving, simply turns them away from recognizing this as a special and important religious/cultural day. I actually fear that it may lead to an extreme response of people specifically driving on Yom Kippur, since extremism on the religious side almost always breeds extremism on the secular side. In order to preserve the Jewish value that gives people free choice, to preserve Jewish unity, and to create an environment in which the masses embrace Judaism instead of detesting it, we must shy away from Katz’s approach and go even further to separate religion and government in Israel.
The moment we return to this core value of non-coercion, Jews will be able to embrace their country and their Judaism, and we will see the most positive shifts in attitude toward Judaism emerge among Jews in Israel and throughout the world. Jewish organizations and individual voters should bolster and support courageous leaders and parties who seek to take on the establishment and separate religious services from government in Israel. Furthermore, laws must be in place to protect citizens from coercion within their communities.
It is time to put an end to religious coercion in Israel, especially on a government level, and to restore a Judaism where everyone is free to exercise their most basic human and Jewish right – choice.