Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Passover in Israel

Wed & Thursday - Pessah illuminated

Count on matza being brittle, on maror being bitter, and on the Chief Rabbinate to exploit the most widely and lovingly observed festival to create a pointless controversy.

Were the rabbinate a bastion of probity and spirituality, a relentless campaigner for Jewish unity and Ahavat Yisrael, we might be inclined to forgive its occasional dalliance with religious coercion. But it is none of these things. So its declaration that it will "out" stores selling leavened products on Pessah is just the latest instance of this country's established church getting its Judaism precisely wrong.

The eating of bread and other leaven known as hametz is forbidden by Halacha. Observant Jews of all streams, and many secular Jews too, willingly honor this ancient tradition; 70 percent of Israelis won't go near bread during the festival.

The rabbinate, however - with little success - has been pressuring supermarket chains (most of whom anyway do not sell hametz) to fiddle with their checkout bar code readers so hametz items can't be processed. How superfluous - as if supermarkets were inundated with tactless customers surreptitiously grabbing from inaccessible shelves and trying to sneak their purchases past the checkout clerks.

The law of the state is clear and just: Hametz may not be displayed during the festival. At the same time, however, it is not illegal to sell hametz. Muslims, Christians and wayward Jews can purchase bread products from stores not certified as kosher. This nicely balances civil liberties with societal values.

The rabbinate's coercive agenda is echoed by the Orthodox nationalist "Legal Forum for the Land of Israel." Better known for championing the settler agenda in the courts, the group reportedly plans to spot-check stores during the intermediate days of the festival and press the authorities to penalize businesses found displaying hametz.

Rabbi Ya'acov Meidan of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut - no liberal theologian he - has wisely argued that coercion is counterproductive, and not the way to bring Jews closer to observance.

FOR THOSE driven nevertheless to impose Jewish values on the public, here are some better ideas:

• The supermarkets that deserve to be "outed" are those that don't pay their Jewish or Arab workers a living wage.

• If anyone's kashrut certificate deserves to be jeopardized, let it be hotels that serve strictly kosher food yet impose a penalty on Sabbath-observing guests who don't check out during Shabbat.

• The Ministry of Interior should be picketed until it stops making the lives of converts miserable. Its latest outrage: A pregnant Italian (Orthodox) convert married to a kashrut supervisor isn't deemed Jewish enough to receive Israeli citizenship.

• Embrace the 300,000 Israelis who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return but have not been allowed to convert to Judaism because they will not commit to leading Orthodox life-styles; lobby for the belated implementation of the Ne'eman Committee findings.

• Pressure local burial societies to allow women to deliver eulogies at the funerals of their loved ones.

• Isolate those who would desecrate God's name by disrespecting the leaders of other faiths. And welcome Pope Benedict with respect when he visits the Western Wall.

• If you are a revered rabbi, tell your flock to follow their consciences in deciding how to vote; add that there is neither sin nor merit in casting a ballot, only civic responsibility.

• Denounce rabbis who pervert the holy texts by allowing husbands to keep their wives chained as agunot in order to extract concessions in divorce settlements.

• There are 10,000 divorces a year. Re-direct part of the "religious" budget to preparing couples for the real challenges of marriage.

• Lament that for some secular people, rumors that a ritual immersion bath (mikve) will be built in their neighborhood evoke fears of haredi coercion rather than joy over this unifying link to an ancient practice.

ONCE every 28 years, our tradition teaches, the sun returns to the position it occupied on the fourth day of creation. That anniversary came around this morning, prompting observant Jews to recite the Birkat Hahama prayer at sunrise. It arrived just in time to remind us what Judaism is about: enlightenment and illumination.

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