The Radical Rabbis Who Trample on Jewish Law to ‘Redeem’ the Land of Israel

The Radical Rabbis Who Trample on Jewish Law to ‘Redeem’ the Land of Israel

Kahanist MK Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Religious Zionism party plants one tree, in the Negev.

Kahanist MK Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Religious Zionism party plants one tree, in the Negev.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The conflict over JNF tree-planting in the Negev is about the police, the Bedouin and the coalition’s stability. But it’s also about the abasement of halakha, Jewish religious tradition, to justify injustice

Anshel Pfeffer

Halakha is a wondrous thing. Seriously. A legal system that evolved from the 613 commandments originally written down in ancient Hebrew in the Torah at least 2,500 years ago (nearly 3,300 years ago if you believe in Mosaic origin), which has influenced the laws and constitutions of countless nations and remains the basic code upon which millions of people lead their lives to this day.

I write that halakha has “evolved,” though of course the ultra-Orthodox panjandrums who see themselves as the guardians of rabbinical law, and spend their days studying the layers of commentary and responsa, would frown on using that Darwinian term. To them, halakha is unchanging since the time of Moses on Mount Sinai: It remains pure and unadulterated.
But that is a bullshit fundamentalist approach. I much prefer the formulation of the great Orthodox scholar of Hebrew Law, former deputy President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Professor Menachem Elon, who said that halakha should be understood in terms of the Hebrew verb it’s derived from – la’lechet, to walk, to go to new places, and to develop with the times.
That is why I prefer to refer to it as halakha, even though it’s a Hebrew word which is impossible to translate in to English, rather than its more technical term – rabbinical law. Because it doesn’t belong to the rabbis, and even if it did, which rabbis? There are so many of them, and none are to be fully trusted.
Of course, halakha develops. Like any legal code it needs to adapt itself to the changing lives of the evolving humans it regulates. To insist that halakha doesn’t develop flies in the face of all historic and contemporary evidence.

Orthodox men stand on a bridge.
Orthodox men stand on a bridge.Credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Many of us secular Jews despise halakha. We despair of its rigidity, when rabbis claim there is no alternative course, and we sneer when the rabbis approve of work-arounds, like Shabbat-lifts and Shabbat-clocks, as if they somehow prove that religious people are all hypocrites because they want to lead their lives according to halakha while enjoying the benefits of technology as much as possible.

But if anything, it’s hypocritical of us to despair when a rabbi tries to impose unyielding strictures only to mock when a rabbi finds ways to be flexible. The problem is with those of us who leave halakha to the rabbis.

I’ve been thinking a lot about halakhic flexibility this week in the wake of the political crisis caused by the Jewish National Fund’s tree-planting program in the Negev. While most of the focus has naturally been on the clashes between the police and local Bedouin residents at one of the planting sites and the threats by the United Arab List to leave the coalition and bring the government down if the work continues, there have also been a less predictable group of JNF critics: Ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

The Haredi leaders couldn’t care less for the Bedouin and their claims to ancestral grazing lands, but they don’t like JNF planting trees during the shmita year.
Very quickly, for the uninitiated, shmita is the seventh year in a cycle going back millenia during which the land of Israel must remain fallow and untended. If you like, an agrarian Shabbat. And just like with other commandments, there are various ways of dealing and working around this. But in general, the JNF, dedicated to reforestation, doesn’t normally plant trees during this year of 5782, a shmita year.
So why is the JNF planting trees on contested land in the Negev in a year where it’s forbidden?
JNF chairman Avraham Duvdevani, himself a veteran religious-nationalist hack, explained in countless interviews this week that while they’re not planting new forests on shmita, they have special rabbinical dispensation to carry out two types of tree-planting – trees needed for “security” purposes, such as those being planted in communities around the Gaza Strip to obscure homes which could be targeted by direct-fire, and trees needed to “protect” land that would otherwise be invaded by Bedouin.
And it wasn’t just Duvdevani who came equipped with a note from his rabbi. Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, who just had to plant some trees of his own for the benefit of the camera, got his own (suitably extremist) rabbi, Dov Lior, to rule for him that “the war for the Land of Israel” comes before the commandment of shmita (not that Ben-Gvir’s trees did much in the war, the Bedouin had them uprooted by nightfall).
They’ve used it when convenient to exonerate convicted bribe-takers, like Shas Leader Arye Dery and former Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, and most recently to cover up the deeds of sexual predators like Chaim Walder. Haredi-Nationalist rabbis like Lior haven’t just abased halakha to justify tree-planting on shmita, they’ve koshered all manner of theft and vandalism in the West Bank in the name of the war for the Land of Israel.
It can go both ways, of course. Back in 1978, when Israel was making peace with Egypt, then Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef used halakha to argue that relinquishing land was permissible to prevent bloodshed. But that was before the fundamentalist alliance between ultra-Orthodoxy and nationalism was formed, when it was still convenient for the Haredi leadership to be on the left of the political spectrum.

Israeli security forces guard Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the West Bank city of Hebron, in November 2019.
Israeli security forces guard Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the West Bank city of Hebron, in November 2019.Credit: HAZEM BADER / AFP

Mocking halakha isn’t the way to face fundamentalism. Neither is looking for rabbis who share your political worldview a great solution. The Reform and Conservative movements have both had ample opportunity to detach themselves from the JNF and the rest of the moribund network of quasi-governmental “Zionist” agencies and movements; they’re not going to raise more than a pathetic protest.

But halakha shouldn’t belong to any stream of rabbis.
Halakha is the largest and oldest body of Jewish literature which goes back way before any of the modern streams of rabbinical Judaism were established (and no matter what the Haredi rabbis tell you, ultra-Orthodoxy is a reactionary ideology which has been around for only a couple of centuries, about as long as Reform Judaism has).
There’s a misconception that to have a significant relationship and acquaintance with halakha, you need to be an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t drive on Shabbat and waits three hours after eating meat to drink a cappuccino. That misconception is convenient for the various Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox leaders of course, but it’s based on the fallacy that any of them represent “authentic Judaism.” None of them do. They simply ignore the bits which are less convenient and present the rest as the full package.
Halakha doesn’t have to be anyone’s exclusive legacy. What any hardline stream of Judaism calls halakha are conveniently curated and updated versions that serve specific ideologies, be they Haredi isolationism or Greater Israel nationalism. If they get to pick and choose what they want to use, why can’t secular Jews? Halakha, which isn’t just laws but also a set of values, is certainly flexible enough.
If you’re fed up with the way halakha is being used to justify so much injustice, perhaps it’s time to start reclaiming it.

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