Beit Midrash

  • Bet Midrash
  • A Nation and its Halachot
To dedicate this lesson

Climate Change


Rabbi Berel Wein

Nissan 5768
The recent furor over the chametz court ruling and subsequent attempt to legislate the ban on displaying publicly chametz on Pesach points out to me an issue that is far different and deeper than the relatively narrow (though vastly important) one of chametz itself. That issue is one of climate change - not the weather but rather the mindset of secular Israeli society, our courts and governmental systems. Observance of traditional laws and rituals is a personal matter and always has been a personal matter. The Talmud taught us long ago that "all things may be in the hands of Heaven except for the fear of Heaven itself." Judaism is grounded and based on the supreme idea that humans have free will and the power to choose without heavenly coercion one’s actions, behavior and belief according to one’s own lights. However, since no person is an island unto one’s self and we all live in a general society that surrounds us, there are certain norms that prevail that govern and therefore to an extent restrict our behavior and choices. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a famous United States Supreme Court decision on the issue of freedom of speech opined that no one has the right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater when in fact no fire is present. There is a certain mindset, a climate of civility and accepted respectfulness that rules a society. Now naturally over time and circumstance this climate and mindset may and does change. The question is whether this change is warranted and beneficial to the society or is it merely divisive, temporary and eventually destructive to society in its nature. Not every climate change can be seen as being beneficial.

There were certain norms of respect that once governed Israeli society, even though that society was perhaps even more secular in lack of observance and in its anti-religious ideology than it is today. Marxism was a powerful influence in the Jewish world then as was its attendant atheism. Nevertheless there was a general consensus of a modicum of respect towards traditional Jewish norms that prevailed. Maybe it was nostalgia or just good hardheaded common sense that the climate in the country marked Yom Kippur without traffic, Pesach without public displays of chametz, Tisha B’Av without restaurants being open for business. Such was the climate of the times - not one of religious observance but rather one of respect for Jewish history and tradition and for the great section of Israeli society who held these concepts and observances dear. But the estrangement of Israeli society to this type of public climate has been taking place gradually over the past few decades. Respect for tradition and knowledge of the Jewish past are certainly not emphasized and in many cases not even taught in the Israeli public educational system. Religious Jews are demonized, albeit subtly but nevertheless constantly, in the main media channels. Sensitivities to neighbors and fellow citizens have become non-existent. Public Shabat desecration abounds and no one takes into account the damage, spiritual, social, and generational that springs from this. The climate has changed - no respect for tradition or our past or for the sensitivities of a large and ever growing section of Israeli society is present.

So it is not the individual issue of public display chametz on Pesach that is so hurtful. It is rather the indication of how severely the climate regarding Jewish tradition has changed. There are many Jews who are not observant but who nevertheless respect the prohibition of chametz on Pesach. The court’s ill-advised decision, which concentrates on the legal tree in front of it and does not take into account the general societal forest that exists, weakens the public’s resolve of respect for tradition and sensitivity to generations and other sections of society. If chametz on Pesach would be a Christian or Moslem religious tenet I am confident that the court would have ruled otherwise. It is ironic in the extreme that in the Jewish state, Judaism is the least respected of all religions. Unless that public climate is now changed through education, political leadership and common sense good will there will be further divisiveness, erosion of respect for one another and a greater atmosphere of social discontent than what exists already. We worry about and debate the problem of environmental climate change - global warming - endlessly. But certainly not enough attention is being paid to the social and spiritual climate change that is so dangerous to the homogeneity of Israeli society and to its unity and future destiny. Global warming may be a climate change that defies our attempts to govern it. But our social climate change is certainly subject to rectification and improvement.
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