Shabbat in Zion
What are we to make of Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman’s threat to quit the government unless Israel Railways stops desecrating Shabbat? On one hand, it is commendable of Litzman and the other haredi ministers and MKs from United Torah Judaism and Shas who have joined him, to choose a battle that is not about the narrow interests of haredim.
This coalition crisis is not about more money for yeshivot or IDF draft deferrals for yeshiva students.
Litzman and the others are ostensibly fighting to maintain the Jewish character of the State of Israel by ensuring that the traditional day of rest – Shabbat – is honored.
At the same time, Litzman’s demand for a literalist interpretation of Jewish law as practiced for centuries in exile, when the Jewish people was a minority living in a country run and ruled by non-Jews, seems hopelessly out of touch with the 21st century reality of the Zionist state.
To keep the nation safe from the many enemies seeking its destruction, the State of Israel must maintain an extensive military force that operates both state-of-the art technologies and low-tech equipment all powered in a way that is, strictly speaking, prohibited on Shabbat. The definition of what constitutes “life-saving operations” has been greatly expanded to allow our security forces to carry out their tasks unhindered.
In order to allow for the normal functioning of the many electrical appliances we rely on day and night, Israel Electric produces electricity on Shabbat that powers not only hospitals and essential industries, but also households and public buildings, including those inhabited and used by Israel’s growing haredi population.
Similarly, in order to allow for the continued functioning of an extensive railway system that transports hundreds of thousands of people around the nation so they can be productive and contribute to the stability and strength of the economy, essential maintenance operations must be carried out that necessitate shutting down the railway for an extended period. It is only natural that Shabbat, the national day of rest during which the vast majority of Israelis do not work, would be the day chosen to do this maintenance.
Litzman, a seasoned politician, seems remarkably naive when it comes to appreciating what it takes to run the Jewish state. To what extent does Litzman expect the nation and its citizens to sacrifice economic productivity or even reliable public transportation for the sake of adhering to Shabbat according to criteria that developed while the Jews were exiled from their land? Where possible, every reasonable effort should be made to minimize Shabbat desecration – with an emphasis on reasonable.
But what Litzman is asking for – a complete stop to railway work by Jews on Shabbat – is simply unreasonable and incompatible with the running of a modern Jewish state. Officials at Israel Railways said that if the work is not done on Shabbat, trains would have to be shut down for a full day during the week, disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands who rely on the train daily. Solutions such as employing non-Jews, which smack of a bygone time when Jews lived in exile, are anachronistic and, frankly, ridiculous.
Haredi lawmakers like Litzman cannot expect the entire Israeli population to make similar sacrifices.
The haredi population – or at least its leaders – have not completely reconciled themselves to the realities of running a modern Jewish state. They shun military service, deprive their children of an education that would allow them to become doctors, engineers and scientists and have no political aspirations to run a haredi candidate for prime minister. If it had depended on haredim, the State of Israel would never have come into being.
Thankfully, there were Jews who thought differently.
These are Jews who are not necessarily disrespectful of tradition, but who understand that the age of passivity and exile are over and that the Jewish people has entered a new era in which it must take responsibility for its fate.