The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is prohibiting all area establishments it certifies as kosher from using imported Israeli produce.
Halachically, the RCBC is doing the right thing based on its understanding of Jewish law, but it is doing so at the very wrong time.
Of concern to the RCBC is whether all halachic requirements are applied to Israeli produce. The Torah alone has 58 mitzvot associated with agriculture, and the Sages of Blessed Memory modified and added to these mitzvot. These include forbidding eating fruit that comes from trees planted within the previous three years, any produce grown and harvested in a sabbatical year (such as occurred last year), and whether the produce was properly tithed. Torah legislation requires Jewish farmers in the land to separate from their produce a small portion for the Levites, another small portion for the priests, and a third portion for the poor.
The tithing is of greatest concern because Israel’s chief rabbinate does not regulate it as it does the sabbatical year restrictions.
Tithing, of course, made sense in biblical times. Priests and Levites are prohibited from owning any land, and their careers are tied to the needs of the sacrificial cult. Tithing provided the Levites especially with an income they could not get otherwise. That is not the case today, but the Torah law itself still stands.
Yet I respectfully submit that there is another law the RCBC should consider.
Leviticus 18:5 states, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the Lord.”
The Talmud, in several places, interprets this to mean that in all but three specific areas, life takes precedence over law. Thus, Shabbat “stands aside” when life is merely suspected of being in danger. (See, for example, the “broken bone” discussion in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 148a.) In BT Yoma 83a, the Talmud calls it “obvious” that even in a case of “safek n’fashot,” where there is merely a possibility that life is danger, concern for life takes precedence over strict adherence to the law.
The Talmud, however, never put forth a general principle. Perhaps the Sages assumed, as BT Yoma stated, that the principle was so obvious, it did not need stating. Maimonides, the Rambam, did codify it in his own way in his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of the Foundation of the Torah, 5:1. The Torah’s laws, he explained, were given so that “a person may live by them, not die by them.”
Rashi earlier made a similar observation, albeit as a commentary to a statement in BT Sanhedrin 74a. “For the Merciful One said to violate the mitzvot because of ‘by the pursuit of which man shall live,’” Rashi wrote, “because the souls of Israel are precious to Him.” (See his commentary to ‘sevarah hu.’)
Most of these discussions center around the question of what a person should do if offered the choice of either violating a law or being killed for refusing. Only in three instances—being told to kill someone else, being told to commit a sexual crime, or being told to apostasize—is death to be chosen (and apostasy may be limited to a public act of apostasy).
The principle, however, is much broader. When life is in danger, the law must stand aside. A case in point is a discussion regarding fasting on Yom Kippur found in BT Yoma 83a. If “there is a possibility of danger to human life,” it states, the law takes a back seat. Specifically, if a person says he is ill, he must be given food, even if 100 physicians who are present say that person is not in any danger.
Life takes precedence over law.
This is an incontrovertible fact: The lives of the people of the State of Israel are in danger if the economy of the State of Israel collapses. A country with no money is a country without the ability to adequately defend itself.
This, too, is a fact: The whole point of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is to bring Israel to its economic knees. The BDS movement is of Palestinian origin, and it demands not only an end to Israel’s presence on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, but the right of return of Palestinians to their pre-1948 homes and properties.
The impact BDS has is negligible today, but its power grows as its support grows. World leaders support BDS, even if only unofficially. In the first half of 2016, officials of the Swedish, Dutch, and Irish governments have publicly cheered on the BDS movement. For example, Ireland’s foreign minister, Charles Flanagan, stated that the BDS movement holds a “legitimate political viewpoint,” adding that it is wrong “to demonize those who advocate this policy.”
In January, the New Yorker reported on the growing list of BDS supporters, especially in the United States:
“These include the student councils of seven of the 10 University of California campuses, which have voted at various times to demand that the Board of Regents divest from American companies allegedly profiting from the occupation, including Caterpillar and Hewlett-Packard. The pension board of the United Methodist Church…has blacklisted Israel’s five major banks….The American Anthropological Association, the American Studies Association, and the National Women’s Studies Association have voted to boycott Israeli universities.”
The magazine also noted that Israeli “exports fell in 2015, including a drop of about two billion dollars to the [European Union], its biggest trading partner.” Expect those exports to drop even further in the coming year.
Given this, I respectfully submit, now is not the time to further damage the Israeli export market. The RCBC has legitimate concerns about the halachic acceptability of Israeli produce. Yet those concerns should be made to stand aside as long as an existential threat looms over the heads of Israel’s citizens.
To again quote Rashi, “the Merciful One said to violate the mitzvot because…the souls of Israel are precious to Him.”
THE RCBC RESPONDS:
The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) would like to correct the record in light of Shammai Engelmayer’s recent column entitled “When being right is wrong: Local ban on Israeli produce.” The RCBC has no policy prohibiting produce from Israel. Halachic intricacies posed by Israeli produce demand far greater supervision than what many establishments can practically maintain. As such, our policies are consistent with industry-wide Kashrut practices across North America regarding produce from Israel.
RCBC rabbis are vigorous supporters of the State of Israel and encourage our synagogue members to support Israel and her economy. The mere mention of the BDS movement in a discussion of RCBC practices is wholly irrational and offensive.
Rabbi Chaim Poupko, President
Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, Vice-President
Rabbi Ari Zahtz, Vice-President for Kashrut
SHAMMAI RESPONDS TO THE RESPONSE:
I am not surprised by this response to my column. Of course, the RCBC denies it has such a policy and, in truth, it does not have one—not in so many words. It does, however, have such a policy in practical terms. Read the response carefully. While it would never tell anyone not to buy Israeli produce, it will tell them they cannot use what they buy because “Halachic intricacies posed by Israeli produce demand far greater supervision than what many establishments can practically maintain.” Those “halachic intricacies” were detailed in my column. I also made it clear that I respect the RCBC's decisions regarding these "intricacies." That is made clear from the headline itself: "When being right is wrong." I do not object to the policy. I did raise a question about whether the policy should be put on hold in some way at this time.
Despite my efforts to get the RCBC to comment (and I did make such efforts), I was unable to do so. I assume that I was correct about the nature of the "halachic intricacies," and the RCBC response does not question my take on them. Perhaps, however, there are other “halachic intricacies” of which I am unaware.
For the record, Rabbi Poupko did tell me in an e-mail on July 12, “I’ll be in touch later this afternoon.” On July 14, he apologized for not having done so. “I'm sorry I wasn’t able to be in touch sooner,” he wrote. “I left for Israel on Wednesday. I wish I had known you were rushing to post an article this week. But what's done is done and I see no need to communicate with you on this matter further. The RCBC will handle this on its own.”
This response from the RCBC is what he must have meant.
Also, I did not rush to publish without doing the other due diligence required, in addition to asking for an explanation from the RCBC. In this case, that meant confirming the policy by three unimpeachable sources. I did so by speaking to the owners of three establishments certified by the RCBC, all of whom confirmed—off the record, out of fear of reprisals, one said—that the RCBC will not allow them to use Israeli produce.
As for equating the RCBC with the BDS movement—the clear import of the statement, “The mere mention of the BDS movement in a discussion of RCBC practices is wholly irrational and offensive”—this is simply wrong. I never equated the RCBC with BDS. I did say that as long as the BDS movement is trying to damage Israel’s economy, thereby placing the lives of the citizens of the State in jeopardy, perhaps the RCBC should consider softening its demands regarding those very “halachic intricacies” in view of what I believe to be the compelling halachic guideline that life takes precedence over nearly all of the Torah’s commandments. I do not see how I can make an argument that life takes precedence without also explaining why.