This Jewish calendar year of 5768 is a shmitah year, a Sabbatical year for the land of Israel. There are a whole slew of laws concerning what can and cannot be done with the land and its produce during a shmitah year. Even though I consider myself an observant Jew, I am not overly concerned about these laws. Why not?
To begin with, my reasons for making aliyah were more ethnic than religious. I made aliyah not because I felt this is the land God promised the Jews, nor because of the relative ease of observing the laws--including those laws (like shmitah) that only apply in the land of Israel. I made aliyah because this is the one place on earth where it is normal to be a Jew. Being an observant Jew, I would certainly entertain the possibility of taking upon myself those religious commandments associated with the land, but I would need convincing. I would want to feel that what I am doing is not an anachronism but in the everlasting spirit of Judaism. I would want to be sure that what I am doing is part and parcel of a living tradition, one that can apply its principles to contemporary society.
What do I find in my exposure to the observance of shmitah in the land of Israel? A concentration on the micro details of the laws related to shmitah and a total absence of any larger discussion of the purpose of shmitah and how this purpose might be expanded into a larger social context. Instead of the shmitah reawakening people to concerns about pollution, about ecology, about conservation, about feeding the poor, about better use and distribution of natural resources, about doing something concerning the ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, I see a concentration on minutiae such as the permissibility of letting one’s child play in a sandbox or of putting in new drainage pipes in one’s backyard during the shmitah year.
A basic theological dialectic surfaces when I think of shmitah. Historically, Judaism and the Jewish people have lived both within and without the Land of Israel. If the Land was a sine qua non for Judaism, the religion would have died out with the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. And while this exile was short-lived (though many of the exiles did not elect to return to the land), the exile after the destruction of the Second Temple lasted until our time. So on the one hand you have Jewish theologians such as Abraham Heschel who stress that Judaism is much more concerned with sanctifying time than space (hence the importance of the Sabbath); on the other hand you can look back on Jewish history and say that Judaism’s accommodation to its landlessness was a necessary evil, and that all along the land was meant to be crucial for Judaism--and to say otherwise is to betray a galus (exilic) mentality.
Since I spent my first 36 years in the United States (that is, in exile), there probably is something to this charge that my attitude toward shmitah and other land-based laws is the product of a galus mentality. Yet, ironically, the dominant, micro approach to the observance of shmitah is characteristic more of Jewish exilic life, where the focus of the religion is on the home, than of Jewish life within a modern sovereign Jewish polity. Shmitah is yet another one of those opportunities for modern religious Zionists to think about the Jewish religion as applying to a modern state rather than just to an individual. But once again the tenor of religious practice is being set by the ultra orthodox; and since many of these are non-Zionists, it’s no wonder that the result is a shmitah of a shtetl rather than of a state.
Copyright 2007, Teddy Weinberger