Sponsors of the Shabbat law, which would ban all commercial activity on Shabbat while permitting places of entertainment and restaurants to remain open, are certainly right that the law would, at least in the short run, reduce public desecration of the Shabbat in Israel.
Over the past ten years, public Shabbat observance has declined markedly. Virtually nothing is left of the original status quo arrangements with respect to Shabbat. Not only are restaurants, discos, and movie theaters open in most places, but the large shopping centers on a number of kibbutzim have turned Saturday into a shopping day for much of the country.
Nachum Langenthal of the National Religious Party, one of the bill’s leading sponsors, can thus justifiably portray himself as the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. He is attempting to preserve some trace of the distinction between Shabbat and the rest of the week in the Israeli public square.
The rabidly anti-religious parties pounced on the bill as an instance of "religious coercion" designed to turn back the clock and rob secular Israelis of their Shabbat shopping. But most religious MKs are no more enthusiastic about the bill than Tommy Lapid.
The opposition of religious and haredi MKs requires a bit of explanation. Surely they can all make the same calculations as Langenthal.
Yes, they can. At the end of the day, however, religious Jews view all such calculations as irrelevant. They see their task as following God’s commandments to the best of their ability. The results they’ll leave to Him. No sense in viewing oneself as smarter than God or falling prey to the myth that we, not He, control the world. As the old Yiddish saying goes: "A mentsh tracht, un Gott lacht – Man toils and God laughs."
The bottom line is that religious MKs cannot lend their hand to legislation that appears to sanction chilul Shabbos, even for the sake of Shabbat itself. (Though the Talmud teaches that we violate Shabbat in order to save a life – better to violate one Shabbat now in order to observe many in the future – even that calculation requires a specific Biblical source.)
Over the last 200 years we have had much opportunity to witness what comes of all attempts to improve on God’s Torah – trimming a bit here, rewriting a bit there, and adding a few bells and whistles – in the name of making the Torah more palatable to the modern sensibility. No doubt there were among the religious reformers some who convinced themselves that they were acting for the sake of the Torah, and that through their efforts at least some minimal mitzvah observance would be preserved. All they achieved was to transform the Torah from something awe-inspiring to something trivial and irrelevant, with which every Jason and Jessica felt free to tinker.
Religious Jews view themselves not as the proprietors of the Torah, but as its bailees charged with preserving it as they received it. The myth that "the rabbis" own the Torah, and are free to interpret it as they see fit -- "Where there is a rabbinical will, there is a rabbinical way" – gives rise to much misguided animus towards halachic scholars. When they cannot produce a magical "solution" to every national problem – e.g. how to turn 400,000 non-Jews into Jews – they are accused of indifference to human suffering. Individual suffering is often one factor to be considered in the halachic process, but it cannot become the only factor without destroying the integrity of the halachic system.
By opposing the Shabbat law, religious MKs will do much to dispel the misconception that religious Jews are free to reinterpret the Torah as they wish to further interests close to their hearts.
FROM one point of view, it might be thought that haredi MKs would have less problem with the Shabbat law than those from the NRP. The haredi world has never invested the state with theological significance or proclaimed it the beginning of the Redemption. That the laws of Israel bear little resemblance to those of the Torah does not present them with a theological problem, as its does for some religious Zionists. (The late NRP leader Zevulun Hammer once protested vehemently the attempt to stamp the Israel identity card with a notation that the designation "Jew" on the line for nationality has no halachic credibility.)
Precisely because haredim do not expect the laws of Israel to conform to those of the Torah, one might expect them to be more prepared to consider the practical consequences of the Shabbat law. That, however, is only true in theory.
Israel is viewed by millions of Jews around the world as the Jewish state. What Israel does is, in their eyes, "Judaism." Recognizing that fact, the prime consideration of haredi leaders is that Israel not convey messages that falsify the Torah.
Thus the haredim would sooner dismantle the Chief Rabbinate and remove the state from the business of validating conversions than fudge the halachic requirements for conversion. They will not countenance efforts to preserve the external forms of conversion – immersion and circumcision before a panel of three holders of Orthodox ordination – while ignoring its substance, which is the reenactment of the acceptance of mitzvos at Sinai.
The Shabbat law presents a similar falsification of the Torah. The law effectively legislates a Saturday for Israel on the model of Sunday in the rest of the Western world – i.e., "fun day." Shabbat, however, is not a day to do whatever one enjoys. It is a day when we remove ourselves from the flow of time and reconnect with the One who created the world from nothing by refraining from all creative activity.
Better that the idea of Shabbat remain intact than that some Jews, who do not currently observe the Shabbat, engage in a few less prohibited acts. As long as the traditional vision of Shabbat remains pristine, there remains the hope that Jews who presently have no connection to religious observance will discover Shabbat. Once that vision is lost, however, they will be left with only `Shabbat-style’ that bears no more relationship to the real thing than "kosher-style" hotdogs do to kosher ones.