In recent days, Israel has been swept by a series of internal developments that have once again caused serious tension to the always fragile link between the state and religion. Without delving too far into the political intrigues and allegations, the issue surrounds the decision to halt renovation of an Israel Rail construction project on Shabbat in order to protect the sanctity of Shabbat — following the requests of the Haredi political faction. The result of this decision was nothing short of commuter chaos yesterday when one of the main train lines from Haifa to Tel Aviv was forced shut to allow the work to continue after Shabbat had been completed.
Shabbat is the religious institution that has guided our people’s path for thousands of years of history. It is not simply another Torah commandment, but offers a much needed escape from the weekly rigors of life and thus inspires both our body and soul. It is therefore an aspect of Jewish practice which every Jew should strive to protect, both because we are commanded to do so AND because it is good for us.
At the same, as much as I view keeping Shabbat as an essential component of our existence as Jews, I can appreciate the position of many in contemporary Israel who find yesterday’s situation, which inconvenienced tens of thousands of people, to be bewildering. Why, in a nation where every Shabbat a very sizable percentage of the population does not keep the day, have the Haredi leadership all of a sudden decided to wage a “religious battle” over a few dozen train workers? Legitimately, they point out that every week, service providers from all sorts of sectors are not keeping Shabbat and it goes by without any major protest.
The result is a situation where Shabbat, that which is my most treasured day of the week, and is in many ways the flame that has keep Jewish tradition alive throughout our history, has been allowed to be turned into just another political chess piece. For many Israelis who might define themselves as secular, yet share my passion for the ideal that is Shabbat, there is no doubt that this weekend’s developments will lead them further astray from tradition. And this is the ultimate tragedy of these developments.
Can any political faction, religious, secular or in-between honestly claim that whatever has been achieved over the past few days be really worth that tragic price?
Yet, I would also suggest that these unfortunate developments must be used as a catalyst for good. Rather than wait for the next sparks to fly when these questions again rise to the fore of public debate, let us convene now, Jewish religious leaders of all persuasions and backgrounds and create a common language of what Shabbat is about in the modern State of Israel. Consideration should be given first and foremost to Halacha but ALSO to the real challenges of a society where not everyone shares a common view on what is Shabbat observance and its place in our lives.
I am forced to admit that to reach a national consensus on such a complexity will not be easy — perhaps not even possible. But to allow the very institution which has inspired us, guided us and even saved us over the millennia to become the source of such bitter dis-unity should be something that none of us should ever be willing to accept.