by Dovid Landesman
Is it possible to function as an independent community without mashiach? Or, are there problems and dilemmas that remain unsolvable before his arrival?
The Talmud (Ketubot 111a) recounts that there are three oaths that set some of the parameters that govern communal Jewish life in the post Beit ha-Mikdash era. G-d made us swear that we would not forcibly attempt to recapture Eretz Yisrael nor would we rebel against the rule of the nations – i.e., seek independence. He also decreed that the nations of the world were duty bound not to overly oppress us. Whether or not there is a link between the first two oaths and the third and whether the first two might be abrogated with the permission of the nations are critical elements in the Zionist/anti Zionist debate. Although surely worthy of exploration, this is not the subject being addressed.
Interestingly, the gemara does not explain what precipitated the imposition of these oaths. Under the guise of makom hinichu lihitgader bo – they [Chazal] left room for our speculation – we can conjecture that the oaths had to be imposed because of the inherent – and perhaps insurmountable – difficulties when we have neither the services of a navi nor a functioning sanhedrin to guide us. Devoid of either of these two critical elements – the direct conduit from Heaven that clearly indicates G-d’s will [the navi] and the authority [sanhedrin] competent to suspend/amend halachah in the face of special contingencies [through dictums such as mishum eivah or hora’at sha’ah] – life as an independent Jewish community might be impossible; hence the oaths calling on us not to rebel or try to return as groups to Eretz Yisrael [see Maharsha ad. loc.]. Parenthetically, there are precedents where mishum eivah has been applied by an individual authority; e.g., the heter granted by the Chatam Sofer for a Jewish doctor to be m’chalel Shabbat on behalf of a non-Jewish patient. However, it is questionable whether any contemporary halachic authority would feel competent to make use of that dictum and void a prohibition, permitting something to an entire community on a permanent basis. [I would be most appreciative of any elucidation of the subject from the learned readers of CC.]
Even according to those who maintain that the oaths are no longer applicable – either because the nations did not fulfill their end of the bargain [not to overly oppress the Jews] or because the nations allowed for the creation of an independent state [and we are thus not culpable of violating either of the first two vows] – we are still faced with situations and questions that, seemingly, can only be resolved by an authority recognized by all of klal Yisrael; i.e., mashiach and his sanhedrin. History demonstrates that even a decision issued by the acknowledged posek hador, e.g., the heter mechirah issued by R. Yitzchak Elchanan zt’l to alleviate the problems associated with shemittah observance by the settlers in EY, was not universally accepted. As long as the Jews are dispersed among the nations and subject to their laws which need not be consistent with halachah, there seem to be no existential halachic threats and the dilemmas are academic. But when Jews return to Israel en mass, we do not seem to have the means to cope with the problems that the rule of a non-halachic government or our position among the family of nations can present.
Is it far-fetched to suggest that the efforts of the Mahari Berav to reintroduce semichah in the sixteenth century may have been a result of his perception that only a sanhedrin could resolve the status of the Marranos? Is it not plausible that only a reconstituted and universally accepted Jewish legislative body could effectively and decisively deal with the communal questions faced by the wave of immigration to Eretz Yisrael after the expulsion from Spain. These olim were able to establish a quasi-independent community given the general non-interference by the Turks in the daily affairs of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael and the personal freedoms granted to the communities founded by Donna Gracie and her nephew, the Duke of Naxos. Establishing the communal laws necessary for their viability entailed a body that had full competence.
Could we not further posit that the lack of a navi and/or sanhedrin might be at least part of the reason for the Satmar Rebbe’s zt’l fierce opposition to Zionism? Perhaps he foresaw that the creation of a state could inevitably lead to irresolvable conflicts between the demands of halachah and the functioning of a modern state.
As an example of a halachic quandary faced by an independent Jewish community which would hardly apply on an individual level, consider the following. The transfer of organs between countries for transplant purposes is highly regulated to prevent commercial exploitation. International agreements between the legal authorities who supervise these conventions also insist, understandably, on an acceptable level of reciprocity. Thus, Israel cannot expect to receive organs from other countries – or send Israeli patients abroad to receive transplants – unless it is also willing to supply organs to others. Since most transplants are only successful if the donor organs are removed within a few hours of brain death, the harvesting of donor organs will be severely limited if the state accepts a strict halachic opinion that organs may only be removed when heart activity ceases. The community as a whole may thus find itself in a somewhat untenable position vis-a-vis international donor programs; accepting organs from others but not allowing for the transfer of transplantable organs from Israel. Without a legislative body with the standing and authority of a sanhedrin who would have the competence to redefine death in light of the standards of modern medicine, the country is placed in a rather difficult situation.
It would seem that the fathers of Zionism were themselves at least subconsciously aware of this impending problem. Herzl spoke of creating a State of the Jews [medinat ha-yehudim] rather than a Jewish state [medinah yehudit]. By detaching statehood from Judaism, provision was made that would allow the future state to act in a globally acceptable manner rather than being bound to the traditions of Judaism. What the Zionists did not take into account was the possibility of situations arising wherein the very definition of Israel as a state of Jews would be in question. For example, how would the founding fathers have reacted to the possibility of the state no longer having a Jewish majority? Would they have accepted the idea of limiting citizenship to Jews in the face of what undoubtedly be universal condemnation? For that matter, what would our rabbinical leadership suggest be the appropriate response? Would it be politically tenable to create a ger toshav status without risking the loss of American and European support if Israel adapted what would surely be considered a form of apartheid?
Two current issues have made the question even more relevant.
Israel finds itself threatened by an influx of illegal immigrants from Africa; estimates are that there are more than 1,000 entering the country monthly and some 70,000 already here. Many of these have arrived for purely economic reasons, seeking to find their pot of gold by working in industries and in sectors that most Israelis would never consider. Some, and there are no reliable figures, are genuine refugees, escaping from the civil wars in the Horn of Africa. It seems clear that neither Herzl nor Ben Gurion ever considered the possibility that sixty years after the creation of a homeland for the Jews, thousands of people who have no idea what Judaism means and absolutely no interest in its ethics, would be clamoring to be allowed to share in the state’s financial success.
Few doubt that these illegal aliens are a demographic time bomb. Few are interested in their becoming citizens or permanent residents of the country. But while the vast majority of the country would like to see the problem simply go away, viable and acceptable options must be suggested, examined and applied. What would happen if the Prime Minister, rather than relying on his own moral compass, turned to the Chief Rabbinate – or to the chareidi rabbinical leadership – and asked for guidance? Could we, who know what happens when the enlightened nations of the world have no interest in your fate, turn these people away knowing that no other country is willing to accept them? Are we prepared to hermetically seal the gates of entry, knowing that the Egyptians will feel no constraints in machine gunning down men, women and children whose sole crime is that they were born in the South of Sudan rather than the North?
The second issue relates to the letter circulated by a number of rabbis regarding the question of renting or settling property to non-Jews. Let us leave the strict halachic implications of the question without discussion; no doubt that the signatories are well aware of the fact that lo tichanem does not apply to rental property and they are aware of the political ramifications of their p’sak. What can be discerned here is a much larger issue: the question of our relationship to other nations in the pre-mashiach era. The Talmud’s decrees of separation from the nations – stam yaynom or bishul akum as examples – were instituted by Chazal as a means of preventing the development of relationships with the gentile community. They created barriers insuring the separation of Jews from their neighbors at a time when our rabbis perceived a real danger of casual associations developing into full-scale relationships; a situation now repeating itself in contemporary Israel – especially in the non-religious sectors. Clearly, almost all of us are interested in preventing the development of such relationships and were it possible to legislatively institute such bans without there being any repercussions, would support their implementation. But this is an impossibility today and the public relations disaster caused by the rabbis letter is catastrophic. The booming Israeli economy is completely dependent upon exports and international trade. As much as we fear sanctions against Israeli products for political reasons, a boycott organized because of an apartheid policy would be calamitous and would affect the entire country – including those learning in kollels and yeshivot. Again, what would happen if the government turned to the rabbanim and asked for moral guidance in dealing with this question? Do we have a resolution that is both halachically and politically acceptable or do we shrug our shoulders and declare teiku?
To those who have chosen to retreat into the museums of Meah Shearim/Bnai Brak, these problems may not be vexing. But to those who feel that statehood is a reality that must be dealt with whether or not we like it, what are our halachic options? In terms of the future of k’lal yisrael, would you not agree that the resolution of these dilemmas is far more critical than Lipa concerts or even the ordination of a rabbah? One can only wonder if there is a solution applicable in the pre-mashiach era when we do not yet enjoy the benefits of am l’vadad yishkon.
Rabbi Landesman resides in Ramat Beit Shemesh and comments on the foibles of life in Eretz Yisrael. He is the author of a collection of essays on Jewish themes entitled There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven. His new book, Food for Thought, No Hechsher Required, is scheduled for February publication.