When being right is wrong: Local ban on Israeli produce

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is prohibiting all local establishments it certifies as kosher from using imported Israeli produce.

Halachically, the RCBC is doing the right thing based on its understanding of Jewish law, but it is doing so at the very wrong time.

The RCBC’s concern is whether all halachic requirements are applied to Israeli produce. The Torah alone has 58 mitzvot associated with agriculture, and the sages of blessed memory modified and added to these mitzvot. They include forbidding eating fruit that comes from trees planted within the previous three years, any produce grown and harvested in a sabbatical year (such as occurred last year), and whether the produce was tithed properly. Torah legislation requires Jewish farmers in the land to separate from their produce a small portion for the Levites, another small portion for the priests, and a third portion for the poor.

The tithing is of greatest concern, because Israel’s chief rabbinate does not regulate it as it does the sabbatical year restrictions.

Tithing, of course, made sense in biblical times. Priests and Levites are prohibited from owning any land, and their careers are tied to the needs of the sacrificial cult. Tithing provided the Levites especially with an income they could not get otherwise. That is not the case today, but the Torah law itself still stands.

Yet I respectfully submit that there is another law the RCBC should consider.

Leviticus 18:5 says, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.”

The Talmud, in several places, interprets this to mean that in all but three specific areas, life takes precedence over law. Thus, Shabbat “stands aside” when life is merely suspected of being in danger. (See, for example, the “broken bone” discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 148a.) In BT Yoma 83a, the Talmud calls it “obvious” that even in a case of “safek n’fashot,” where there is merely a possibility that life is danger, concern for life takes precedence over strict adherence to the law.

The Talmud, however, never put forth a general principle. Perhaps the sages assumed, as BT Yoma stated, that the principle was so obvious that it did not need stating. Maimonides, the Rambam, did codify it in his own way in his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of the Foundation of the Torah, 5:1. The Torah’s laws, he explained, were given so that “a person may live by them, not die by them.”

Rashi earlier made a similar observation, albeit as a commentary to a statement in BT Sanhedrin 74a. “For the Merciful One said to violate the mitzvot because of ‘by the pursuit of which man shall live,’ because the souls of Israel are precious to Him.” (See his commentary to “sevarah hu.”)

Most of these discussions center around the question of what a person should do if offered the choice of either violating a law or being killed for refusing to do so. Only in three instances — being told to kill someone else, being told to commit a sexual crime, or being told to apostasize — is death to be chosen (and apostasy may be limited to a public display).

The principle, however, is much broader. When life is in danger, the law must stand aside. A case in point is a discussion of fasting on Yom Kippur that is found in BT Yoma 83a. If “there is a possibility of danger to human life,” it says, the law takes a back seat. Specifically, if a person says he is ill, he must be given food, even if 100 physicians who are present say that he is not in any danger.

Life takes precedence over law.

This is an incontrovertible fact: The lives of the people of the State of Israel are in danger if the economy of the State of Israel collapses. A country with no money is a country without the ability to defend itself adequately.

This, too, is a fact: The whole point of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is to bring Israel to its economic knees. The BDS movement is of Palestinian origin, and it demands not only an end to Israel’s presence on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, but Palestinians’ right of return to their pre-1948 homes and properties.

The impact BDS has is negligible today, but its power grows as its support grows. World leaders support BDS, even if only unofficially. In the first half of 2016, officials of the Swedish, Dutch, and Irish governments have cheered on the BDS movement publicly. For example, Ireland’s foreign minister, Charles Flanagan, said that the BDS movement holds a “legitimate political viewpoint,” adding that it is wrong “to demonize those who advocate this policy.”

In January, the New Yorker reported on the growing list of BDS supporters, especially in the United States:

“These include the student councils of seven of the 10 University of California campuses, which have voted at various times to demand that the Board of Regents divest from American companies allegedly profiting from the occupation, including Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. The pension board of the United Methodist Church…has blacklisted Israel’s five major banks….The American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, and the National Women’s Studies Association have voted to boycott Israeli universities.”

The magazine also noted that Israeli “exports fell in 2015, including a drop of about two billion dollars to the [European Union], its biggest trading partner.” Expect those exports to drop even further in the coming year.

Given this, I respectfully submit, now is not the time to damage the Israeli export market further. The RCBC has legitimate concerns about the halachic acceptability of Israeli produce. Yet those concerns should be made to stand aside, as long as an existential threat looms over the heads of Israel’s citizens.

To again quote Rashi, “the Merciful One said to violate the mitzvot because…the souls of Israel are precious to Him.”

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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