With the latest Shabbat train crisis, the Israeli Shabbat once again found itself on the front lines of the country’s religious vs. secular quagmire, being described as a problem and not a promise, as a day of restrictions and not a day of rest, as disconnected from life rather than restoring its very essence.
Battles about cinema openings, clashes over automobile traffic and wars over shopping malls have, in general, ended with crushing defeats for the religious side. Many activities that were formerly banned in the name of the religious status quo are now conducted in the open. Thus, the operation of shopping malls, industry and cultural and public events that necessarily involve religious desecration of Shabbat take place every weekend. This defeat of the religious has been in both public perception and in the field.
It is time for all of us to rethink the desired character of the Israeli Shabbat. Such an undertaking may be led by the national religious sector, inasmuch as its members are both “religious” and “national.”
However, before discussing action, let’s discuss facts:
First axiom: The Israeli Shabbat is not a religious Shabbat. One can state with absolute certainty that neither hoarse ultra-Orthodox shouts of “Shabbes” nor demonstrations by teenage members of Bnei Akiva have any influence today. Even political threats and coalition provisions have, to a great extent, lost their power. In other words, we must internalize the fact that the religious minority has no practical ability, and no moral justification, to impose its will on the majority.
Second axiom: Despite lingering disagreements, most Jews in Israel want Shabbat to be a special and different day. This strong preference rests on three solid pillars. First, on the individual level, Shabbat is an effective barrier to the chronic modern ailments of work addiction and obsessive consumerism. Second, on the social level, Shabbat can rescue the disadvantaged sectors — workers who have no bargaining power and the owners of small businesses trying to compete with giant chains — from the clutches of market forces. Third, on the national level, Jews in Israel—most of whom have a connection to Jewish tradition—see Shabbat as a means to preserve a basic element of Jewish memory and as a defining factor of the country’s Jewish identity.
Third axiom: The Israeli Shabbat is being progressively detached, not only from the religious ideal, but also from the ideal of the Israeli majority. Our Shabbat is losing its original biblical distinctiveness as a day of rest for everyone: “Your son, your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant, your beasts, and the stranger in your gate.” Roughly 500,000 Israelis now work on Shabbat. While some readers of this column are sitting and singing the Shabbat table hymn, “This is a day of light and joy for Israel: a Shabbat of rest,” many are actually experiencing a Shabbat of toil. It’s very sad.
CALL TO ACTION
The national religious sector, whose members see themselves as a serving elite, must take the lead in a historic campaign by a broad Israeli coalition on behalf of a distinctive Jewish, albeit not halachic, Shabbat. This is a critical step for enhancing the Jewish character of the state, whose value is immeasurably greater than the various legislative initiatives concocted in recent sessions of the Knesset by National Religious leaders.
The shape of a possible arrangement was formulated in the Gavison-Medan Covenant and in the draft of a Shabbat Law drawn up by a team at the Israel Democracy Institute, headed by former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar. This proposal would sanction recreational, entertainment and cultural activities, as well as public transportation on a reduced schedule, but ban activity by state institutions and non-essential work in industry and commerce — including shopping malls, stores and distribution chains. Both recommendations set feasible limits for implementing this balanced arrangement and defining ways to settle disputes that may arise.
Were the National Religious sector to mobilize and take the lead in introducing such an arrangement, the ultra-Orthodox would not be able to thwart it. In their heart of hearts they might even welcome it. Yet no such reforms are on the table because of a passive halachic stand that demurs from supporting anything that could be construed as implicit cooperation with Shabbat desecration.
Such rejectionism is a historic abdication of national and religious responsibility.
From a national perspective, despite its loud claim that it places the Jewish character of the state above all other considerations, the public halachic choices of the national religious leadership are in fact narrow and sectoral. In the name of religious purity, they abandon average, hardworking Israelis and neglect responsibility for the Jewish character of the Israeli public sphere.
From the religious perspective, this conduct is a betrayal of the halachic ethos. The most distinctive and important Jewish phenomenon in our time is the welcome existence of a sovereign Jewish state. These days, Halacha should regulate not only the behavior of individuals, but also the functioning of a state. Therefore, halachists must find solutions, in the spirit of Jewish tradition but based on the progressive power of Halacha, which will permit the state to function.
Can the leadership with two humps on its back — national and religious — take pride in the label “National Religious?”
Yedidia Stern is vice president for research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.