By Rabbi Moshe Grylak
In the name of freedom and democracy, secular Israelis are discarding the very things that give them definition as Jews. Is it really so bad to have a religiously inspired day of rest?
When the city of Tel Aviv flouted government-mandated public Shabbos observance and opened up a free public transportation program on Shabbos (bypassing the Transportation Ministry, which is in charge of setting travel tariffs), to the cheers and whoops of a secular public, the State of Israel essentially declared independence from Judaism. While more and more towns have instituted private Shabbos transportation initiatives and have issued municipal permits for stores to be open, many are celebrating the public secularization of the holy day as if it were some kind of victory over the restrictions of Jewish tradition.
The state as a political entity has cast off the Status Quo, a long-standing agreement made between the religious parties and Ben Gurion’s government in the founding days of the state, which protects Jewish traditional values in the public sphere. It’s the last stop when it comes to respect for the Torah, which defines Jewish identity and answers the question of what it means to be a Jew. In this fundamental sense, the jubilant throngs who are celebrating their emancipation have separated themselves. Of course, they are still Jews, and the Jewish flames of their neshamos can never be extinguished. But by divorcing themselves from our mesorah in such a public and official way, they have crossed the line. And all this begs the question: Is Israel a Jewish country, or simply a country of Jews?
We may feel bad as we witness the crumbling of basic Jewish social structures, but honestly, the trend was inevitable. The State of Israel is now like Caesarea in the time of the Roman Empire. True, for decades the Status Quo held back the tide, but that is now history. Our chareidi politicians will continue to fight, but the will of the secular majority has prevailed. How long can a status quo hold out against the masses who were raised without knowledge of, or feeling for, their Jewish heritage, and desire freedom to pursue their pleasures without the limitations of a tradition that means nothing to them?
While a handful of politicians, their heads long immersed in a sea of non-Jewish thought, have led the revolt, we can only be thankful for the decades in which Israel’s head was publicly lowered in respect, more or less, for the Shabbos Queen. The real wonder here is that the Status Quo was upheld for so many years with so little grumbling from those who wanted their malls and public transportation on their day off from work. For the truth is, the Status Quo prevailed as it did, not because of the clever maneuverings of our stalwart religious MKs, but because a majority of the nonobservant public still wanted things that way out of some residual connection to authentic Judaism.
It’s important to note that even some secular Israelis are wary of public buses on Shabbos because they fear they will harm Israel’s unique Shabbos atmosphere.
“I’m not a fan of the idea of buses on Shabbat. I like having a day of quiet, and I am skeptical that the buses will be able to run frequently enough to justify taking them instead of walking,” Lauren Cohen, a cook who lives in Tel Aviv, told a journalist. Although she’s not religious, Cohen said Israelis have every right to a religion-linked day of rest. Taking that away, she said, is also a type of religious coercion. “There’s nothing wrong with Shabbat being a rest day when half of Europe shuts down on Sundays,” she said.
But we’ve entered a new era, where we’re seeing the fulfillment of Professor Yisrael Klauzner’s worried prediction, back in 1950, that Israel on its current path would become a nation of “Hebrew-speaking goyim.” This from a devotedly secular Jew who merely questioned how Jewish national identity was to be preserved in the newly founded State of Israel.
Many secular Jews, however, have recognized the importance of our tradition in general, and Shabbos in particular. Even non-Jews have remarked on the bliss of Shabbos. An Israeli journalist, not especially meticulous in his mitzvah observance, once told me about his encounter with a non-Jewish public figure from Switzerland, who asked the journalist where in Israel he lived. “Bnei Brak,” the journalist replied, and the non-Jew’s eye’s lit up. “So you live in Paradise!” he said, and went on to explain that he’d once spent a Shabbos in Bnei Brak, and it gave him a sense of the experiential benefits enjoyed by those fortunate enough to keep Shabbos regularly.
What is so sad is that until now, some of the most secular-minded Jews of modern times have still preserved the light of the Shabbos candles in their hearts and acknowledged the enormous significance of the day, even if from a non-halachic place. Half a century ago, a prominent secular Israeli author wrote eloquently about the importance of Shabbos to the life of the Israeli people. His words bring into sharp relief the misguided petty-mindedness of those who can’t see beyond their hankering for seven-day bus travel and shopping sprees, and the tragedy of their obliviousness to the matanah tovah given to the Jewish People by HaKadosh Baruch Hu Himself:
“The technological age crushes the human soul. The race to speed everything up destroys the rhythm of emotional communication between man and his fellow, making it functional at best, but sparse in spiritual and emotional content.
“The multitude of choices and sheer variety of ways to satisfy needs erode man’s inner peace. Modern advertising, including what is known as public relations, are meant to rob the ‘customers’ of their last remaining serenity and push them from one artificial craving to another. And so communication with oneself is destroyed as well, and man never comes to self-knowledge or self-understanding….
“This is why we need Shabbat; it is vital to us if we mean to endure on this land. There is nothing more modern than the authentic Shabbat! Shabbat in its original form, in its spiritual sense, and in its psychological parameters, is extremely important to us — to us, the people of the 20th century…
“Shabbat is the completion of creation. That is to say, it is on a completely different wavelength from the weekday, and it is necessary for sustaining life at its fullest…” (Eliezer Livneh, “Thoughts on the Shabbat in Our Times,” in Haaretz, July 16, 1965).
A true thinker, even a non-religious one, was able to see what is lost on those who now run from Shabbos as from a plague. If only they had the sensitivity to feel, like the Swiss gentile who visited Bnei Brak, that if they chose, they could be living in Paradise.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 789)