Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thoughts on the Heter Mechirah and Shemittah Discussion

by R. Moshe Taragin

[In response to a heated discussion about Heter Mechirah on an e-mail list, Rav Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion wrote the following. I am posting it with minor editing and his permission. -GS]

I have been following the heated and important discussions regarding the employment or avoidance of Heter Mechirah. While I typically shy away from contributing to naturally "charged" or ideologically incendiary discussions I would like to voice a position which I think is not being sufficiently sounded.

First let me frame my comments with the following parameters:

Click here to read more1) In general, I favor a Dati Leumi "integrated" approach. I feel drawn to a form of Avodat Hashem which worries about a collective or national reality and doesn't telescope personal religious life at the neglect or even disinterest of co-religionists who may be less passionate. For this reason, despite many legitimate concerns with our community (no community is perfect) I have chosen to live and raise my children within this attitude and a community founded upon these principles.

2) Given that perspective, the Heter Mechirah is unavoidable. Under current global economic realities, even if every Israeli farmer would be interested in Shemittah compliance, the economy would suffer the type of setback which would entail a severe national risk. Our ability to defend our land and maintain our presence in defiance of Arab antagonism is deeply tethered to our economic strength. Endangering this economic superiority is tantamount to strategic military risk.

3) We are not concerned merely with sustaining a healthy economy as a strategic asset. We are also interested in basic national coverage of kashrut. If my kashrut standards are sturdy but the broad secular population doesn't eat basic kosher foods, our hopes of redemption are regressing rather than advancing. The Heter Mechirah at once allows economic viability as well as broad national kashrut for those completely unconcerned and ignorant of Shemittah.

4) In the past, despite my support for Heter Mechirah as a necessary national "device" I have attempted to avoid relying upon it, given its questionable halachic basis. Even its most ardent supporters concede that it is a necessary "flexing" of the halachic system. Just as I don't rely upon selling chametz but am glad that major food suppliers enjoy that halachic brace, I similarly did not rely upon the heter but did support its application. This Shemittah cycle however, if faced with the option of Heter Mechirah or produce from Gaza, will rely upon the heter of Rav Vittman. By the way this reflects the policy of Yeshivat Har Etzion (rarely accused of adopting unnecessary kulot in their kitchen management). Indeed one could claim that purchasing food from Gaza is not even halachically superior (but morally questionable). One could assert that it is assur, as you are de facto becoming an accomplice to murder (which carries yeihareg v'al ya'avor - especially when you are the potential target). Even the strict halachic consideration may view heter fruit as a superior halachic option.

5) Finally (before I get to my main point), even if we disagree with talmidei chachamim (and we have the right and sometimes the responsibility to do so), we must display the respect - both in words and demeanor - which represents our respect for Torah and its values. Otherwise we are likely to broadcast disrespect of Torah in general to our children and neighbors. The erosion of Torah interest is certainly not a peril we can easily invite into our communities. I have often sharply disagreed with Rav Ovadiah Yosef regarding his political statements or comments and have voiced this sharp disapproval to my students. It is my responsibility to provide moral clarity as best I can in the face of perceived distortion. However, if he would enter the room I would eagerly "roll in his dust" and grab whatever Torah I could from this walking sefer Torah. I always preface my disagreement with an acknowledgement of his Torah genius and my reverence of him as a person. I am happy that there seems to be a consensus regarding this on the list. Lesser people would have a harder time at this. [R. Taragin was responding to e-mails which had been perceived as disrespectful to Gedolei Yisrael. The author of those e-mails had subsequently apologized and R. Taragin was congratulating him for his decision. –GS]

Sorry about the lengthy intro but I did not want any misunderstanding of my intended point.

We are a community which preaches pluralism - not just as a humanistic ethic to respect and learn from others. Our pluralism is rooted in the recognition that Hakadosh baruch Hu is too limitless and infinite for any one person or derech to fully capture. The entire system of Shas and halachah is predicated upon the notion that there is not a right and wrong but multiple options - each of which possesses a kernel of the Divine truth. The Shulchan Aruch was written to standardize practice not to discredit options.

Why are we not applying that standard to the Charedi/Dati Leumi divide in general, and to Shemittah protocol in particular? Can it be true that for some of us the highest form of religious practice incorporates national concern and service while for others it is poured narrowly and deeply into personal religious integrity? There is great zeal, commitment, and sacrifice to the Charedi standards of kashrut (think of the glatt meals on a plane or the types of foods which a Charedi would avoid) which deserves our emulation if not imitation. Again I state CLEARLY - I disagree with the application of this policy to the current Shemittah and have a difficult time eating badatz. However I am not prepared to discredit this approach as a legitimate alternative to my own search for profound religious experience. For some people extreme vigilance about very personal religious issues - such as the food they ingest completely overwhelm any broader abstract national notions. Even though I don't think that way I certainly esteem the dedication on display. More so, even though I disagree with the application to the complexities of Shemittah I emulate that discipline and try to apply it better within my own lifestyle (other kashrut areas, better kavanah during berachot etc.).

Could it be that our instinctive Charedi discrediting is rooted in our own underconfidence in our own equally powerful derech. If we are confident in our form of avodat Hashem can we bring ourselves to recognize the existence of an alternative and equal approach. Hashem created us as different and for some one model works and for another a different model is superior. I fear that we preach open-mindedness but only in one direction. Niels Bohr (link) once wrote "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."

The ideal for Shemittah is a year of agricultural tranquility - an elusive state of retreat which perhaps we are unable, under the imperfect redemptive state, to fully attain. Perhaps until we reach that moment, we can utilize Shemittah, with its differences of opinion and sharply divided ideological lines, to reaffirm or commitment to "elu v'elu divrei Elokim chayim" and at least work harder at creating social or communal tranquility with the people whose lifestyles are still closest to our own - despite the important differences. When Shemittah ends and Rosh Hashanah 5769 dawns, our community and the Charedi community will be the ones gathering in shul to blow shofar and continuing our joined experience of mitzvah observance.

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