Open Zion

06.28.13

Coercive Shabbat Enforcement In Tel Aviv?

Shabbat approaches and I make my plans. I’m more observant than the average American or Israeli Jew (more than my own husband, come to that, who is also both Israeli and American), but less observant than many. We’ll make Kiddush in a kitchen that’s strictly kosher, and I won’t do anything of a professional nature from 20 minutes before sunset until the third star can be seen in the sky; Havdalah, on the other hand, almost always gets forgotten in our house and, in the course of Shabbat, I’ll turn on lights and heat food as the need arises.

This is what religious observance looks like in a free society: Some do more, some do less (and inevitably, some judge more, some judge less). But ultimately it’s up to the individual to determine what his or her faith and level of observance must reflect.

And yet it was with real ambivalence that I greeted the news this week that Israel’s Supreme Court has instructed the Tel Aviv Municipality to either enforce its own by-laws forbidding certain businesses from functioning on Shabbat, or write new by-laws.

When I lived in Tel Aviv, Friday afternoon was by far the best part of the week. One by one the stores and cafes would close, there was always a street party or beach event somewhere, filled with lazy, end-of-week revelers, and as you walked home with a Shabbat’s worth of fresh fruit and roasted sunflower seeds, rest would descend on a city best known for its frenetic pace.  It was lovely. Except, of course, if you’d run out of eggs, or you needed aspirin and the only emergency pharmacy open was half-way across town.

Not to mention the coercion piece of it.

The stores in which I could not shop, the errands I could not run, these were all a result of laws, by-laws, rules, and regulations that exist all across Israel that serve to limit commerce and enforce religious compliance on customers, clients, and owners who simply have no say in the matter. Should business owners choose to flout those laws and the municipalities in which they function choose to enforce them, heavy fines are usually levied and owners have to consider what’s more costly: Paying the city every now and then, or closing down?

The real cost is higher than either of those, however. As much as I loved my quiet, lazy Friday afternoons, as much as I love Shabbat and believe that its observance is an act of worship, enforced religion has no place in a democratic society.

The Jewish national movement succeeded where many national movements have failed, and its proponents now have an actual state. The fuzzy lines that have always existed between what is Jewish “nationality” and what is Jewish “religion” are not made any less fuzzy by the fact of a state, but they are made more urgent.

Jews are both a people in the modern sense and a faith community in the ancient one, but it was for purely modern, political reasons that Israel’s early political leaders granted (some of) its early faith leaders wildly disproportionate power. Rabbis became kingmakers and acted to establish laws and policy regarding religious observance, and as a result, huge swathes of Israeli national life are run as if the country were not so much a nation-state as an Orthodox shul.

Which is a big enough problem for all Israeli Jews who happen to not be Orthodox, but there’s another side to the coin as well: Are there laws in place—or not? Are Israeli laws meant to be kept—or not?

Tel Aviv and much of Israel has managed to wedge itself into the worst of all possible worlds on the issue: Laws have been passed which are patently bad, because they’re not in keeping with a democratic ethos, and those laws are routinely broken, because too many people find them onerous and easy to break. Which is to say: The entire system manages to disrespect and damage Israel’s democracy and legal system about six ways to Sunday (or, you know: Shabbat).

I love Shabbat, but the way I observe it is my choice. If I choose to be an apikoros, that’s between me and my Maker, and no one sitting in a dusty office at any end of the earth should be able to tell me otherwise. Self-selecting Orthodox communities are free to self-select and keep the commerce at bay within those communities’ boundaries, but as tax-paying citizens, any Israeli who wants to pick up a liter of milk on Saturday morning should be able to do so.

The Supreme Court is right: Either Tel Aviv should enforce its own by-laws, or change them. As it stands, everyone—the state, its citizens, democracy, and (I would argue) Judaism itself—loses.