Israel's highest court clashed with the Jewish state's rabbinic leadership on Monday as Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger acquiesced to a Supreme Court request to reconsider the rabbinate's stringent stand on Jewish laws pertaining to the shmita, or sabbatical year.
A panel of judges that included Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch gave the rabbinate until next Monday to reconsider appointing more lenient kosher supervisors in cities and towns in which the local rabbi adopted a stringent stand on fruits and vegetables grown in Israel by Jewish farmers.
The Supreme Court asked the Chief Rabbinate's Governing Council, which is headed by Metzger, to reconsider a ruling made two weeks ago that gave local rabbis the prerogative to reject as nonkosher produce grown by Jewish farmers during the shmita year.
According to Jewish law, every seventh year, agricultural activities are highly restricted. The produce that is grown by Jews who disregard these restrictions is not deemed kosher.
However, a solution exists within the framework of Jewish law that allows Jewish farmers to continue to work as usual, but it remains controversial. Known as heter mechira, the solution involves selling Jewish-owned land in Israel to a non-Jew.
The chief rabbinate officially adopted this as a legitimate legal solution to the restrictions of the shmita year, so as not to force Jewish farmers to either halt all agricultural activity, or to market fruits and vegetables through nonkosher channels.
Nevertheless, several local rabbis who belong to the Chief Rabbinate and receive salaries from the state have refused to recognize heter mechira.
In Herzliya, Petach Tikvah, Netanya, Jerusalem and Bat Yam, among other cities, local rabbis have announced that markets, restaurants and other food-serving venues would not receive kosher certificates if they sold produce grown under the auspices of heter mechira.
The Growers Council and the Farmers Association petitioned the Supreme Court last week arguing that the Chief Rabbinate stringencies have made it difficult for them to sell fruits and vegetables grown locally.
Growers and farmers estimated that they were liable to sustain a loss of as much as 700 million shekels in the upcoming shmita year if stringent local rabbis banned their produce.
Shaul Peles, the attorney who represents the farmers and growers, said that the decision of the local rabbis not to allow the sale of heter mechira produce would "strike a serious blow to the local agriculture industry.
Courts Set to Clash
As Peles explained: "The Supreme Court made it clear that it opposed the Chief Rabbinate's overly stringent stand. There is hope that the danger to local agriculture that would result if the rabbinate had its way will be avoided."
However, Rabbi Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono and a member of the Chief Rabbinate's Governing Council, stated that the Supreme Court had no business interfering in inherently religious issues involving Jewish law.
"Whether or not to recognize heter mechira is a purely halachic issue that is not under the Supreme Court's jurisdiction," said Arussi, who has a degree in law from Hebrew University.
The Chief Rabbinate is now debating its next course of action. Metzger's spokesman said that in the coming days, the Chief Rabbinate's Governing Council would be convened to discuss the issue of the local rabbis' autonomy.
Some rabbis argue that it would be better for the Chief Rabbinate to backtrack before the Supreme Court forces it to do so, because if the Supreme Court were to issue a decision forcing the Chief Rabbinate to capitulate, it would undermine the body's authority vis-à-vis the secular court.
However, other rabbis have argued that the Chief Rabbinate should stick by its decision.
If the Supreme Court intervenes and forces the rabbinate to allow heter mechira, "everyone will know that heter mechira is under the kosher supervision of the Supreme Court -- not the Chief Rabbinate -- and they will treat it that way."