As a halakhically observant Jew, there are certain awkward situations that arise between me and those of my loved ones for whom halakha is not a consideration. Some are not avoidable, but certain situations are actually a matter of choice, and I am not confident that I always make the best ones.
When my secular Israeli family gets together for the Jewish holidays, I am absent. In truth, I could make arrangements to have kosher food available and certain light switches taped down, etc.; but being in a secular environment during Jewish holidays is acutely uncomfortable for me. The lack of ritual observance and the atmosphere of telephone chatter, lit screens and buzzing espresso machines detracts from my religious and spiritual experience so I’ve avoided this. Instead, I make an effort to see my family members in Israel on other days.
Observant Jews often have to seek a personal balance between engagement with the world and halakha. In way of example, I spent Sukkot (Festival of Booths) in Malta during my honeymoon a few years ago, and in preparation, I sought out a short lulav (palm fond) in Israel, which fit into my suitcase so that I could fulfill my daily ritual obligation for the festival. Also, since I had no access to a sukkah (festive, ritual booth) in Malta, I avoided eating certain foods on my vacation, which I could only eat in a sukkah. This wasn’t religiously ideal for me, but this was my compromise.
In short, while some things are simply not halakhically permissible, many situations can actually be navigated with some flexibility and creativity – a matter of preference rather than absolute limitation – although most people do naturally tend to prefer to remain in their comfort zones.
A recent, significant development in Israel has led me to reflect upon this distinction –
Just two weeks ago, the Rabbinate issued new kashrut regulations for hotels and event halls, following Hiddush’s legal challenge, demanding that the Rabbinate operate according to Israeli law. This was a very positive step forward, as the Rabbinate had been abusing the authority invested in it for many years, imposing illegal religious restrictions upon hotels and event halls by threatening them with the revocation of their kashrut certificates.
Indeed, the Knesset has granted the Rabbinate monopolistic power in the realm of kashrut certification; but the Kosher Fraud Law explicitly states that “in granting the kashrut certificate the rabbi will consider only the laws of kashrut.” Repeated Supreme Court rulings subsequently instructed that “the purpose of the law is to deal solely with the kashrut of food, and not with whether the facility conducts itself according to halakha in respect to anything unconnected to the kashrut of the [food] products served or sold in it.” The Court explicitly alluded to Sylvester (New Year) parties, to putting up Christmas trees in hotels, and to playing music on Shabbat; and it explicitly rejected the notion that any of these acts could justify the denial of a kashrut certificate.
The Rabbinate’s recently updated regulations for hotels and event halls now only impose halakhic limitations that relate to the preparation and serving of food. For example, hotels may have elevators that operate normally on Shabbat for non-observant and non-Jewish guests, but food products may only be delivered via special Shabbat elevators so that halakha is not violated in maintaining the food’s kashrut status.
Personally, I think this is totally reasonable. While I may be less than entirely comfortable on Shabbat in an environment with operational elevators, audible musical equipment, etc., it is ultimately my choice whether or not to stay at the hotel on Shabbat in the first place. Why should my religious standards be imposed upon all of the hotel guests?
Of all the changes to the Rabbinate’s kashrut regulations, the rescinding of its prohibition against fir trees in hotel lobbies will likely be the most visible, come Christmas season. This will likely be jarring to people visiting or living in the Jewish state who are here for an immersive Jewish experience, away from the popular non-Jewish cultures of the world. Still, even if one were to entirely disregard the sensibilities of the tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit annually and support Israel during their holiday season in December and early January, does emotional discomfort justify outlawing Christian holiday symbols?
According to Knesset law, the answer is no – Israel is not the Jewish equivalent of a theocratic Sharia (Islam law) state. In fact, we publicly pride ourselves on allowing people of all faiths access to their holy sites, unlike the Jordanians who denied Jews access to the Kotel (Western Wall) during 1948-1967. Our society is democratic and open, despite certain religious and political leaders, and certain institutions that resist the religious and cultural pluralism which defines us, disregarding Israeli law with abandon.
In the video below, Christian Israeli resident Jonathan Elkhoury proudly expresses his support for Israel, providing a glimpse into modern Israeli society. My heart bursts with love for this open, Jewish country, and I would resist the forces that aim to strengthen the traditional Jewish element of Israel’s character at the expense of honoring Am Yisrael’s diversity, as well as our stewardship of a land holy to so many others.