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In Israel, it's temple vs. state over farming

A loophole in the observance of Jews' agricultural Sabbath sets off a religious and economic controversy.

December 07, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Yochay Sorok and thousands of his fellow farmers should be taking the year off right now, allowing their land, and themselves, to rest in observance of a Jewish tradition that dates to Leviticus.

It is the Shmita year, an agricultural Sabbath that comes every seven years, during which, according to the Old Testament, Jewish farmers in the land of Israel must let their fields lie fallow.

But Sorok, customer relations manager for the Chubeza organic farm outside Jerusalem, is working -- as are the vast majority of Israeli farmers. Just before the start of the Jewish New Year on Sept. 13, Sorok signed papers at the offices of his local chief rabbi, technically selling the farm to a non-Jew.

He never met his farm's "buyer" and doesn't need to. Next September, the purchase check will be torn up and everything will return to normal.

"It's a trick. But it's a smart trick," Sorok said of the nominal land sale. "That's the Jewish way of dealing with the Torah. You reinterpret -- not for small, selfish reasons but for good reasons. . . . Giving people a living is a higher cause."

Known as heter mechira, or permitted sale, the loophole has long been endorsed by Israel's religious establishment as accepted practice. This year, however, heter mechira has become a hot-button issue, culminating in a rare collision between temple and state.

It began when one of Israel's two chief rabbis, Yona Metzger, announced a change: Regional religious authorities would be free to set their own policy on whether heter mechira produce would be considered kosher. Several regional rabbis immediately took the opportunity to declare it non-kosher.

Although the move failed when the Israeli Supreme Court stepped in and ruled against Metzger, the perceived power play by ultra-Orthodox rabbis has sparked widespread resentment of their increasing power in the country.

"The seeds of a rebellion against the Chief Rabbinate have been sown," said an editorial in the daily newspaper Haaretz.

Produce suppliers in the Mediterranean coastal city of Herzliya filed a lawsuit after their local rabbi declared heter mechira produce non-kosher.

An executive at a Herzliya-based catering company said the decision left him with a drastically reduced list of produce suppliers he could buy from without risking his all-important kosher status.

"Some things are very expensive, some things are missing altogether. There's no cherry tomatoes, thyme or rosemary. And greens are very expensive now. Go explain to the clients that they can't have a certain dish because of Shmita," said the executive, speaking on condition of anonymity because he fears angering Herzliya's powerful religious authorities.

"There are suppliers that we did not want to work with in the past, but now we are forced to because they are one of the few approved by the religious authorities this year," he said.

Other critics called the controversy a blatant attempt by Israel's ultra-Orthodox community to force its beliefs and kosher standards on the rest of the country.

The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 12% of the country's population but 30% of Jerusalem's, have never accepted the heter mechira concept. During Shmita years, they buy only imported goods or produce grown on Arab-owned land in Israel.

"They always presented [heter mechira] as an example of the theological and religious weakness of the modern Orthodox community," said Rabbi Gilad Kariv of the Israel Religious Action Center. Kariv, a Reform rabbi, described Metzger as "a puppet controlled by the ultra-Orthodox."

Israeli Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon said the loss of the heter mechira loophole would cost the country's agricultural sector $400 million.

"I will not allow the fervently Orthodox rabbis to force their views on the entire Israeli public," Simhon told the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot.

Other detractors included modern Orthodox Jews, who support the heter mechira principle, and non-Orthodox Israelis, who simply want to keep kosher without too much inconvenience or expense.

"I don't accept enforcement, and I reject coercion," Meir Fleishman, a 56-year-old contractor, said as he shopped at an organic market in Herzliya. "People must follow their conscience and act in keeping with a particular way if he thinks it is important or worthy."

The dispute ended up before the Supreme Court after the produce suppliers in Herzliya challenged the Chief Rabbinate's decision. In October, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, saying that if a local rabbi refused to accept heter mechira produce, an additional, more flexible rabbi would be appointed.

The Supreme Court's decision essentially reset the issue of heter mechira's kosherness back to the realm of personal choice. For observant Jews, the question of how to properly observe Shmita remains subject to debate.

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