Let us assume that all the Knesset members pushing the so-called Shabbos bill, which would ban commercial activity on Shabbos while implicitly allowing recreational activities, have only the best of intentions.
Religious MKs, like Nachum Langental of the National Religious Party, can congratulate themselves on the fact that they are putting their fingers in the dyke, and that if they do not act now nothing will be left of the status quo arrangements with respect to Shabbos that have existed since the inception of the State. They may well be right. The opening of huge commercial shopping centers on kibbutzim, with the sanction of the Israeli Supreme Court, does, in fact, threaten to turn Shabbos into just another shopping day throughout the country.
At a conference last year under the auspices of an organization calling itself National Consensus, Ra’anana Mayor Ze’ev Bielski pointed out that the opening of kibbutz shopping centers has ramifications far beyond the shopping centers themselves. When Kibbutz Ga’ash opens a shopping center outside of Netanya, for instance, every shopkeeper in Netanya finds himself faced with the choice of opening on Shabbos or going broke. Netanya Mayor Miriam Feierberg, in turn, finds herself under overwhelming pressure to permit full-scale shopping downtown. And if downtown Netanya opens up, so eventually will every nearby city.
In this fashion, the people who gave the world the idea of man as something more than a sophisticated beast of burden whose life revolves around earning money are producing one of the most frenetic, commercially based societies in the world.
Non-religious sponsors of the law, like Labor’s Effie Oshaya, can pride themselves on showing respect for the value of Shabbos. And both the religious and non-religious sponsors can be pleased with themselves for having demonstrated an eagerness to try to forge some kind of societal consensus that cuts across religious and non-religious lines. They have made a conscious effort to turn down the heat between religious and non-religious Jews by seeking practical solutions that deliberately eschew the search for an unattainable agreement on ultimate issues.
At the end of the day, however, the bill will not achieve its goals, and will likely heighten secular/religious tensions. Demagogues from the anti-religious Left – Shinui and Meretz and large segments of Labor – desperate to find any issue that will bring them back to popular favor, despite their discredited security agenda, already began attacking the law as an instance of "religious coercion" before it was even introduced into the Knesset. They have portrayed the law as nothing more than an attempt deprive secular Israelis of their beloved shopping seven days a week at the mall. (Polls of the Jewish population, unfortunately, reveal that shopping on Saturday is extremely popular with the public.) In a few short years, Saturday shopping has entered the fabric of Israeli life. By now, secular Israelis view such shopping as a "divine" right.
Nor will chareidi Knesset members support the Shabbos law proposal. Though the terms of the law only specify what is prohibited, all supporters of the law describe it as a compromise that allows restaurants and places of entertainment to be open on Shabbos. The standard rule of statutory interpretation – i.e., what is not expressly forbidden is permitted – makes that permission virtually explicit.
The chareidi world will not act in a way that appears to sanction certain forms of chilul Shabbos, all the arguments in the world about how the "Shabbos law" will reduce the overall amount of chilul Shabbos in Israel notwithstanding.
We must make clear that the Torah is not ours to compromise just because we have a cheshbon that the results will be better. Our task is to do what the Torah demands of us to the best of our ability, and leave the outcome to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Few claims have caused as much havoc both within and without the Orthodox world as, "Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a rabbinic way." The implication that the rabbis are free to interpret the Torah anyway they want when it suits their interests, chas ve’Shalom, has given rise to a host of evils. The first is that many claiming the title rabbi proceed to act in accord with that dictum. The second is that when rabbis who view themselves as interpreters of halacha, not its authors, are unable to find "solutions" to a particular problem – e.g., mamzerus – they are denounced as cruel and indifferent to human suffering because it is assumed that they could find a solution if they really wanted. By demonstrating that we are not free to play with Hashem’s Torah, even though doing so might be perceived as advancing our interests, we can go a long way to refuting the lie that there is always a "rabbinic way."
In addition, we cannot do anything that conveys a false message about the nature of Shabbos to millions of Jews around the world.
The chareidi world has never joined with the national religious world in imbuing the state of Israel with theological significance; we never proclaimed the state of Israel reishit tzmichat geulateinu. Nevertheless, it is a fact that millions of Jews around the globe view Israel as "the Jewish state." Whatever Israel does is in their minds "Judaism."
Recognizing this, our gedolim have always insisted that our political representatives do everything within their power to prevent false messages about the Torah from being conveyed by the State. A classic case in point is conversion. The influx of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Russian speakers over the last decade has created tremendous pressure to lessen the standards for conversion in order to somehow "integrate" those Russian-speakers into the Jewish population. The Neeman Commission attempted to finesse the basic problem that only a small percentage of those immigrants could ever be expected to make a full acceptance of "ol mitzvos." Yet without that acceptance the poskei hador hold no conversion is possible.
Instead the Neeman Commission said the State of Israel should settle for the halachic forms of conversion – tevillah and milah before a beis din of three Orthodox musmachim – without its substance. That approach of "kosher-style" conversions was absolutely rejected by the chareidi world as a falsification of the meaning of geirus – a reenactment of kabolas Torah at Sinai. Better to dismantle the entire structure of connection between the state and the rabbinate, and thereby take the state out of the business of determining the validity of conversions, than to have the state convey a false message about what is geirus or "Who is a Jew."
The Shabbos law presents exactly the same issue. If enacted, every child growing up in Israel, and many others around the world, will grow up with the impression that Shabbos is a day of rest– rest from work, rest from school – not much different from Sunday. Today most Jews in Israel violate the Shabbos, but at least they know what Shabbos is. No one thinks that "fun" is the definition of Shabbosdik. Under the Shabbos law, there might well be fewer individual acts of chilul Shabbos, but the concept of Shabbos as a day of refraining from all creative activity in order to remember the One Who created from nothing would be lost to a much greater degree. As long as the concept of Shabbos is still preserved in its pristine purity, there still remains the hope of more and more Jews discovering it, but once that is lost we are left with only "Shabbos-style," which bears no more relationship to the real Shabbos than a "kosher-style" hot dog bears to a kosher one.
Those who proposed the Shabbos law would be better advised to present it in conjunction with another law calling for a five-day work week, as has been proposed by Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah party. Such a proposal links the interests of religious Jews interested in preserving the Shabbos and secular Jews afraid of the 24/7 commercialization of Israeli life. Many secular Jews who cannot imagine life without their Saturday shopping at the kibbutz mall today might find it easy to do so if they knew that there was another day for shopping without the time pressures of work.
Nor would the benefits be confined to the non-religious population. Religious Israelis of Anglo origin often find themselves missing the Sundays they remember from the old country. Those who work would have one more day to learn for a number of hours uninterrupted. Frum families too would benefit from increased opportunities for shared activities outside the home.
The Sunday law, then, is just the type of practical solution that serves the interests of large segments of the population, albeit for very different reasons, without any need for achieving any consensus on the ultimate meaning of life.