Since Israel declared its modern independence in 1948, the top political leadership has largely been represented by figures from the so-called “secular” community. I say so-called because I know that many of these people were – and are – committed Jews who understand and embrace the importance and sanctity of our traditions. Still, the fact that Israel’s new prime minister hails from the religious Zionist community deserves to be celebrated by all segments of Israeli society, as well as supporters of our country from all over the world.
Naftali Bennett’s election illustrates that Torah observance is not an inherent barrier to serving in the top position of the Israeli government. At the same time, the fact that it took this long for someone who publicly promotes religious Zionism means some questions about the compatibility of personal practice and public role are to be expected.
Of course, issues will need to be addressed on a personal and case-by-case basis. On this very practical level, there are specific halachic issues that the prime minister will need to confront, and I am confident that he and his staff will do so with humility and insight.
Certainly, Bennett’s religious observance will be on greater public display than it has been in the past. Certainly, that alone creates a great Kiddush Hashem – a public exaltation of God’s name. And the very fact that a prime minister of a Jewish state is able to act fully within the guidelines of halachah further exalts the Divine Name.
More generally, I welcome this opportunity to address a few considerations from a broader perspective.
The Jewish tradition dictates that even the highest level public servant, such as a king, or in this case the prime minister, is not above the law, and has the same halachic requirements as every subject or citizen. This includes upholding the halakhic principle pikuach nefesh – saving a life a rule that takes priority over nearly every other matter of Jewish law. This responsibility to safeguard the primacy of life is manifest in an even more comprehensive manner when applied to the practice of a national leader. The responsibility for the lives of others provides a leader with both the permission and the obligation to give pikuach nefesh the utmost priority in a more practical way than is needed by most people, and with regard to most of halachah. Certainly, there is great potential for conflict between pikuach nefesh and, for example, keeping Shabbat – and it is here that a leader’s requirement to keep people safe exceeds even his requirement to observe Shabbat.
The potential for prioritizing pikuach nefesh to complicate Shabbat observance gives rise to the very specific halachic question of whether it would be preferable to retain non-Jews to act in certain roles over Shabbat and enable the Jew to avoid transgression. However, when it comes to the role of the prime minister, it’s not necessary. Because the prime minister makes life-saving decisions on a regular basis, he cannot be dependent on the involvement of a non-Jew and there is no halachic requirement to assign a non-Jew the role of “Shabbos goy.”
True, consideration could potentially be given to setting up halachically-designed communications systems ahead of sunset on Friday that would reduce any concern about Sabbath violations. Such a system would be acceptable only if it could be determined with certainty that it would have no negative impact, whether operational or practical. The priority is first and foremost preserving and defending human lives; it cannot be said often enough.
In addition to issues of Shabbat, the prime minister is in every way the public face of the nation and that also has halachic implications. For example, during the times of year on the Jewish calendar designated for collective national mourning (such as for the destruction of the two Temples), when many halakhically observant men refrain from shaving in a demonstration of mourning, the prime minister would be expected to shave. He would certainly be permitted to shave and dress in a respectable fashion as befitting a world leader. Global expectations as to one’s outward appearance are clear, and being presentable to the world is vital for the daily functioning of a figure on that stage.
When it comes to a specific need for a prime minister to act in a certain way that is related to his performance of the job., the underlying concept that drives halachic practice is one of accommodation. This requires a level of wisdom and discernment on the premier’s part, but showing the public his respect for halacha will allow our traditions to be revealed in positive ways never before possible.
Though it would seem that the questions of how one can manage religious observance while the state makes its many demands spotlight the potential for conflict between the two, really the country should focus instead on the beauty of halakhic practice, and its dynamic nature. The very application of the concept of “pikuach nefesh” (again, the primacy of saving a life) to explain Bennett’s future conduct highlights the flexibility of halacha, and the way it can be drawn to apply to any circumstance.
In that vein, the public awareness of how the prime minister can function fully within the guidelines of halacha will expose more people to the encompassing nature of Jewish law. Deliberations and debates that were once the purview of only certain rarefied elements of Jewish society are likely to become of interest to the broader public in ways that I firmly believe will allow them to better recognize and appreciate the beauty and meaning of our halachic-legal system. I believe that we should only be thankful for these political developments that are providing this opportunity.