By Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair
In October 2007, at the outset of the last Shmita year, I was interviewed on NPR, New York, about the Shmita controversy then raging in Israel. It was the latest twist on the century-long heter mechira (permissible sale) story. Rabbis were denouncing other rabbis for their excessive leniency and communities were boycotting other communities’ kosher certifications. Word of the whole sorry saga reached the US and NPR wanted to know what was up.
Somehow they came to me. I tried to explain to the polite, bemused interviewer the complex background (you can listen to my efforts here) – the commandment from Leviticus 25 to let the land lie fallow one year out of every seven, Rav Kook’s compassionate heter mechira leniency in 1909 allowing the pioneering Jewish farmers to sell the land to non-Jews for the duration of the Shmita year so that they could avoid impoverishment, and the most recent installment in the argument.
(OK, if you’re really interested – in 2007, the chief rabbinate, which had traditionally administered the heter, decided to leave it up to the discretion of local rabbinates as to whether they enabled the heter to be observed in their towns. Many of the haredi local rabbis decided not to, and the religious zionist community–which traditionally supported the heter–was up in arms.)
I did my best to put a sympathetic gloss on these shenanigans, but as I went on, the interviewer’s tone turned from bemused to amused to incredulous. She was especially tickled by the idea that haredi rabbis preferred to buy produce from Hamas farmers in Gaza (who had been raining rockets on Israeli civilians just a few months before) rather than from Israeli farmers who observed the heter.
By the end, she said something like “well, that sounds like a really crazy situation – Rabbi Sinclair, thank you very much for joining us -” and I could tell that she thought the whole thing was utterly ridiculous.
So did I.
I can still recall the embarrassment and humiliation that I felt when I got off the phone from NPR. Shmita, one of the central concepts of Judaism, a profound and powerful idea that we can potentially contribute to the socio-economic-environmental wisdom of the world sounded to this intelligent, open-minded woman like a joke. The whole thing had been reduced to bitterness, internecine squabbling, scrutinizing the labels on your lettuce to make sure that you didn’t purchase anything certified by people who wear a different kind of kippa from you, God forbid, and buying your vegetables from people who were doing their damndest to try and kill you.
I swore to myself that next time around it would be different. and I would try and do a little bit to help make it different.
Next time is almost upon us. On Rosh Hashanah 2014, the next Shmita begins. And it really does look like it could be different. Initiatives in Israel and the US are connecting Shmita to debt forgiveness, social justice and sustainable agriculture. Projects pioneered by The Sova Project, Hazon, Teva Ivri and others are aiming to show how Shmita addresses core, seemingly intractable social and economic challenges that we all face – the growing polarization of wealth and poverty, our ceaseless exploitation of human and natural capital, our very limited ability to predict, regulate and moderate the periodic cyclical crashes that the economy seems prone to, and much more.
For my own very small contribution, I am working on a book for Hazon that will be an annotated translation of the introduction to Rav Kook’s great work on Shmita, Shabbat Ha’aretz, and hope to blog about that during the year.
One thing that shines through the book is Rav Kook’s faith in the power for social and spiritual reawakening embodied in Shmita. He believed that the leniency enabling the land to be sold–and Shmita effectively not observed–was a step on the journey towards the renewal of Shmita. As he wrote in Shabbat Ha’aretz: “We must recognize that we are obligated to strive with all our strength so that in the end the sabbatical year will be increasingly observed in all its holiness.”
May the next Shmita bring us closer to that vision.
Rabbi Yedidya (Julian) Sinclair is Co-founder and Director of Education for Jewish Climate Initiative and Hazon Senior Rabbinical Scholar. He holds a BA from Oxford University in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination. He has been an economic analyst for the UK government, and Jewish Chaplain and Instructor in the Divinity School at Cambridge University. He is co-author of the Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People to address climate change, a joint project of ARC and the UN. Yedidya is married with four children. He likes Torah, hiking, and eating falafel.
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