The election of Naftali Bennett illustrates that Torah observance is not an inherent obstacle to serving as head of the Israeli government.
Since Israel declared independence in 1948, the highest political leaders have been widely represented by figures from the so-called “secular” community – secular but committed Jews who understand and embrace the importance and sanctity of our traditions. .
Yet the fact that the new Israeli prime minister is drawn from the religious Zionist community deserves to be celebrated by all segments of Israeli society, as well as our country’s supporters around the world.
The election of Naftali Bennett illustrates that Torah observance is not an inherent obstacle to serving as head of the Israeli government. At the same time, the fact that it has taken so long for someone publicly promoting religious Zionism means that questions about the compatibility of personal practice and public role are to be expected.
Of course, issues will need to be dealt with on a personal basis and on a case-by-case basis. At this very practical level, there are halakhic (Jewish law) issues that the Prime Minister will face, and I have no doubts that he and his team will do so with humility and insight.
Jewish tradition dictates that even the highest official, such as a king, or in this case the prime minister, is not above the law and has the same halachic requirements as any subject or citizen. This includes respect for the halachic principle pikuach nefesh, saving a life, a rule that takes precedence over almost all other matters of Jewish law.
Responsibility for the lives of others provides a leader with both the permission and the obligation to give pikuach nefesh the highest priority in a more practical manner than is necessary for most people, and in what concerns most of the Halachah. Certainly, there is great potential for conflict between pikuach nefesh and, for example, Shabbat keeping – and it is here that a leader’s requirement to protect people even exceeds his requirement to keep Shabbat.
The possibility of prioritizing pikuach nefesh to complicate Shabbat observance raises the very specific question in halachic whether it would be better to retain non-Jews to play certain roles in relation to Shabbat and allow the Jew to ‘avoid transgression. However, since the Prime Minister regularly makes life-saving decisions, he cannot depend on the involvement of a non-Jew.
Certainly, it could be considered to set up communication systems designed in a halachic way before sunset on Friday. Such a system would only be acceptable if it could be determined with certainty that it would have no negative impact, whether operational or practical. The priority is above all to preserve and defend human life.
In addition to Shabbat matters, the Prime Minister is in all respects the public face of the nation and this also has halachic implications. For example, during times of the year in the Jewish calendar designated for collective national mourning (such as the destruction of the two Temples), when many halachic men refrain from shaving during a mourning event, the prime minister would be allowed to shave and dress in a respectable manner as befitting a world leader. The overall expectations for her outward appearance are clear, and being presentable to the world is vital to the day-to-day functioning of a figure on this stage.
When it comes to a specific need for a prime minister to act in a certain way that is related to his or her performance of work, the underlying concept guiding halachic practice is that of accommodation. It requires a level of wisdom and discernment on the part of the Prime Minister, but showing the public their respect for Halachah will allow our traditions to be revealed in a positive way never before possible.
While issues of religious observance when running a country may highlight a conflict between the two, the country should instead focus on the beauty of halachic practice and its dynamic nature. The very application of the concept of pikuach nefesh (the primacy of saving a life) to explain Bennett’s future conduct highlights the flexibility of halacha and how it can be applied to any circumstance.
In this vein, raising public awareness of how the prime minister can function fully within the framework of the Halacha guidelines will expose more people to the all-encompassing nature of Jewish law.
The deliberations and debates which were once the preserve of certain rarefied elements of Jewish society are likely to become of interest to the general public in a way which I firmly believe will enable them to better recognize and appreciate beauty. and the meaning of our halachic legal system. .
I think we should only be grateful for those political developments which provide this opportunity.
Rabbi David Stav is the Chief Rabbi of Shoham, Israel, and founder and president of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.