The mitzvot (commandments) of Shemittah (the Sabbatical year) and Yovel (the Jubilee year) have undergone fascinating processes of secularization over the years. Shemittah underwent a process of new age-y individualization, and the Jubilee went through politicization. But do we really need mitzvot at all?
By Yarin Raban
Few mitzvot (commandments) and halakhot (Jewish laws) have retained a place of honor within the secular Jewish world. Most of Jewish law, with its six hundred thirteen detailed commandments, has remained the bastion of halakhically observant Jews, who still struggle to fulfill all the commandments (which is no simple task). Even a secular-cultural Jew who sees herself as intellectually or spiritually connected to the Jewish bookshelf usually still sticks to the realm of aggadah (Jewish legend, stories and values) leaving the halakha to others.
The great leader of secular Jewish renaissance, Chaim Nachman Bialik, already observed this in his now well-known treatise “Halakha ve-Aggadah” (“Law & Legend”) in 1917:
“We have now have a generation that is all legend [aggadah]. Legend in literature and legend in life. The whole world is nothing more than a legend within a legend. Of law [halakhah] and all its significance there is no trace.”
Today even the greatest proponents of Jewish renewal – who spend day and night studying and teaching and renewing Torah, and complaining about all those other secular Jews who have neglected the Jewish sources – they still usually remain somewhere in the space between talmudic tales and modern Hebrew lit.
And no wonder! Halakhah is not our concern, we are secular! The laws and the commandments are the first yoke we threw off when we received the new Sinai of modern times: Enlightenment, Haskalah, Liberalism and Humanism. Halakha is rigid and binding – but we are free men and women! We are progressive and pluralistic – not rabbinic! We are free from the terrible burden carried by our religious ancestors on their hunched and miserable backs! We removed it when we removed the shtreimel and the shabbes. We have no interest in this halakha, which, in Bialik’s ironic words, is “scrupulous, strict and iron-clad, like strict judgment,” which “declares decrees and cannot be bent” and is “pious piety, duty, and enslavement.”
So few are the commandments that succeeded in “infiltrating” into the secular world. And even these we do not generally adopt not as commandments (mitzvot), but rather as suggestions for a good, meaningful and ethical life. The difference between the concept of law as law vs. law as suggestion is one of the greatest transformations of secularism. This is an important point mainly because we usually understand the secular revolution as a sociological revolution: millions of people, in our case Jews, ceasing to observe religious laws and throwing off the vestments of religious life.
In truth, however, the secular revolution is not only a revolution of practice, but it is also a revolution of interpretation – interpretation of religion, commandments, and traditions. Secular Jews did not simply cease to observe all six hundred thirteen commandments. In fact, secular Jews have continued to preserve quite a few of the ancient commandments, but the mitzvot we observe have simply ceased to be commandments for us, and have become something completely different. This is a profound revolution of interpretation and consciousness. And it is one that has not only permeated the secular world, but has seeped into the religious world as well.
This week we read Parashat Behar, which contains numerous commandments that the secular Jewish populous – especially in Israel – likes to emphasize, because they are “social” or “ethical” commandments. The most significant ones in our parasha are the commandments of Shemittah (the Sabbatical year) and the Yovel (the Jubilee year). commandments.
“When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the LORD: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce—you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.” (Leviticus 25: 2-7, NJPS Translation).
Shemittah means ceasing to work the land and its outgrowth. The Shemittah is said to renew the soil, to re-fertilize it, to air it out, and, more importantly, to give rest to those who labor upon it – human and animal alike, regardless of race, gender or origin. It is also known from scientific and agricultural research that letting the land rest will help the soil renew itself. The mitzvah of Shemittah is still technically in force, and in the State of Israel today, it is customary to refrain from working the land during the Sabbatical year and to purchase crops from Arab Israelis or the Palestinian Authority. (It should be noted that the mitzvah of Shemittah applies only in the Land of Israel and not other lands.)
In recent years, Shemittah in Israel has taken an interesting turn. The religiously observant are very strict about it, although halakhic dexterity and loopholes have turned the daily process of buying and eating produce in the Shemittah year into something virtually unremarkable, a bit like the fluffy rolls and cakes available today in Israel that one hardly notices are kosher for Passover. In the secular Israeli public, the mitzvah of Shemittah observance is hardly felt, but the discourse of “spiritual Shemittah” is growing in certain circles of Jewish renewal.
The Shemittah in secular Israel has undergone what one might call a process of individualization and psychologization. Shemittah has changed from a socio-economic imperative that deals with the core of economic activity into a sort of psychological model for healing the mind: abandoning one’s burdens, anxieties, frustrations, and disappointments. Shemittah has become, through this process, something that happens in a person’s heart, not in a field or a grocery store.
After the Shemittah comes the mitzvah of the Yovel (the Jubilee year):
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family. …. In buying [land] from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests… But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land. (Leviticus 25: 8-24)
The mitzvah of the Jubilee commands us to ‘reset’ land ownership completely every fifty years. As it is written, “And the land shall not be sold beyond reclaim.” The mitzvah of the Jubilee was de facto abolished by Hillel the Elder nearly two millennia ago and is not observed anywhere today. However, inspired by the concept of the Jubilee, in 1960 the Israel Lands Law established that all Israeli land belongs to the state and cannot be sold permanently. An individual only has the right to lease the land for an extended period, at the end of which the lease can be renewed.
However, even the Jubilee commandment, perhaps because it is no longer practiced according to halakha, has undergone a process of intense secularization and politicization. For decades it has been used as ethical justification for equal distribution of land, whether for socialist and socioeconomic reasons and or in the context of the establishment of a Palestinian state and the evacuation of settlements.
The endless study of Jewish aggadah (legends, stories, morals and values), as beautiful and inspiring as it may be, will not necessarily lead to action. When we focus only on aggadah we remain in the realm of inspiration, insights and study. As Bialik writes:
“We see a new generation growing up in an atmosphere full of sayings and chants, filled with hot air and empty words. They invoke the language of nationalism, rebirth, literature, creativity, Hebrew education, Hebrew thought, Hebrew labor – but all these things are hanging on by a thread of some kind of loose affection – affection for the land, affection for the language, affection for the literature. But what is the price for this amorphous affection?”
These two mitzvot, which lie at the heart of Parashat Behar, have undergone processes of secularization not because they no longer matter to the secular public, but rather to the contrary. They have gone through this process (the process of psychologization and the second of politicization) precisely because the secular public finds them relevant to their lives and wants to have a more fruitful and practical dialogue with them in their daily lives. As I see it, this is a process that fulfills, or at least begins to fulfill, what Bialik asked us to do:
“A Judaism that is all aggadah is like iron that has been brought into the fire but has not been let to cool. Good will, aspiration, the awakening of the spirit, internal affection – all these things are beautiful and useful when they end with action, action as hard as iron, a cruel duty.”
If we remain only with the Oven of Achnai (and other sweet stories), we can enjoy ourselves and our delicious dialectic talents, but the world around us will not benefit. But when we work to create new meaning and new purpose from ancient commandments, then we can truly transform Judaism into an activist Judaism. We can turn a Judaism of aggadot and midrashim into a Judaism of action. Through this process of secularization and reclamation of mitzvot, we can return to a Judaism of actions, a Judaism of halakha in a new sense: a Jewish culture that has a hold in the tangible world of doing. Not doing for the sake of ‘doing a mitzvah’, but doing for the sake of tikkun olam. Doing for the sake of creating a more just world. This should be our call to action today for secular-cultural Judaism in Israel and everywhere.
Yarin Raban is a teacher of Jewish philosophy at the BINA Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and at the Galil High School in Kfar Sava, and a researcher of Jewish secularism at Tel Aviv University.