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Should Jewishness in Israel Be Legislated or a Choice?

Fight over chametz sales at Pesach raises question of legislating religious principles, but freedom of religion is an option that should be decided by individual and not Knesset
© Sergey Nivens/
© Sergey Nivens/
Shalom Hartman Institute Founder Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z”l was a leading thinker among philosophers of contemporary Judaism and an internationally renowned Jewish author. As part of his unique vision to deal with the challenges of Judaism in the modern world, Rabbi Prof. David Hartman founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976 in honor of his father. He was a man who is with us no more A thinker, teacher, and lover of mankind Our

It would appear that a crisis as a result of the Shas Party threat to leave the government seems to be a central problem facing Israel today. The suggested legislation that supermarkets and grocery stores should be permitted to sell hametz during Pesach has aroused enormous anger and response from the religious political parties. They feel that the Jewish quality of the country is being threatened and undermined by the legislation. How can a Jewish country have chametz being sold on Pesach? What does it say about the Jewish quality of this society?

One understands the concern. There is something sentimentally and esthetically pleasing about going into a supermarket in which the proprietor tells you, “This is chametz. This I don’t sell during Pesach,” and whose store is filled with kasher lePesach foodstuffs, and there is a clear awareness we are living in the holiday of Pesach.

The majority of Israelis celebrate Pesach by having seders, and many would not dream of eating bread on Pesach. There is a sense that there is a folk participation, a folk agreement that the holiday of Pesach should in some way reflect itself by what is available for someone to purchase on this holiday.

I often remember people going to the Old City on Pesach – those who wanted chametz – and would go into Arab stores and acquire their chametz needs. But it was always a trip to the Old City; it was not available in the normal course of shopping. I appreciate this sentiment, and far be it from me to know how you create a spirit of traditional Jewish values in a free and open society.

I enjoy so much seeing the collective life of the community giving expression to Jewish tradition. It is beautiful to see on Sukkot restaurants building sukkot, and to see sukkot on the balconies of so many Jewish families.

Montreal‘s indoor sukkah

This is a contrast to what I used to see in Montreal, where in the Reform temple they built a sukkah inside the shul. In some ways the sukkah was a way in which Jews went public, eating and often sleeping in a fragile hut made up of cloth, timber, or walls of wood and singing and celebrating the holiday in the public marketplaces of Israel.

In an important way, the move from galut, the Diaspora, to Israel was the way I experienced how Judaism went public. It was not, “a Jew at home and a human being in the public marketplace.” You can be a Jew in all aspects of your life in Israel. This is a deep and significant meaning of the State of Israel.

But the issue that one faces – should this be legislated and made a crime if you don’t obey it – is a different matter. Should a religious spirit and a folk tradition acquire the status of legislative power? Or is it the role of the government just to create conditions of security, but not necessarily to worry about the soul of the Jew. Is individual freedom of conscience the ultimate value to guide us in this society, or should we recognize the need to create a public face that mediates traditional Jewishness?

Freedom of religion

One is caught in this dilemma. I can appreciate the aversion people have for legislating religious principles. I appreciate the feeling of some that the government should not enter into your own private spiritual domain and dictate to you what you can and cannot eat on Pesach. Freedom of religion or non-religion is an option that should be decided by the individual and not by the legislative power of the Knesset.

On the other hand, if we are interested in some shared, collective space that mediates some flavor of Jewishness and gives a Jewish quality to our public life, then it is the role of the Knesset to establish the minimum conditions that would give expression to our Jewish historical heritage.

Should Jewishness be legislated or should it be the result of a personal freedom of choice?

This is the dilemma Israel and the government will be facing in weeks ahead, and it is profoundly difficult to know where the government should go. But to create a coalition crisis in the middle of a political struggle with the Palestinians seems out of place. The threat of breaking up the government is totally exaggerated. That one could express his opinions without necessarily threatening the political stability of society seems to be a self-evident principle.

So, on the one hand I can appreciate the conflict, but I don’t appreciate the threat to break up the coalition. Where in the world would the issue of chametz on Pesach create a government crisis. Isn’t it exciting to live in a country where this happens

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