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Passover bill made law – Is it freedom or coercion?

MK Moshe Gafni with MK Yaakov Asher during a discussion and a vote on the Hametz Law in the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, Mar. 28, 2023. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A new law has allowed hospitals to prohibit foods, containing leaven, from being brought onto their premises. The law, which took its name from the Hebrew word for leaven, or Hametz, passed a third reading vote in the Knesset on Tuesday, resulting in opposition leader Yair Lapid’s claim that it represents “religious compulsion which will have the opposite effect.”  

The law was introduced by Knesset Member Moshe Gafni from the United Torah Judaism political party. Gafni also recently tried to advance a bill which would make it a criminal offense, punishable by law, for anyone to share their Christian faith with an Israeli Jew – a bill which was roundly condemned, and ultimately, scrapped.

The removal of leaven, per scripture, is supposed to be observed by the home of every Jew in Israel during the celebration of Passover (Exodus 12:15). But up until now, it wasn’t a law. This meant that non-Jews, visiting their hospitalized friends and relatives, were free to bring cakes, cookies, bread or whatever else contained leaven, to their family members or friends, but not so this year.  

It was in 2020 that the High Court of Justice had blocked hospitals from checking the contents of people’s bags in order to see if they were bringing in such items, claiming that a search of this kind would invade the privacy of individuals and be considered religiously intrusive. While this proposed law has been an issue of contention between the religious and the secular, it wasn’t surprising to anyone that the new religious right-wing government would do all they could to push this bill through just days before the Passover holiday, and so they have.

This is just one example of why so many Israeli citizens have been involved in the ongoing protests, concerned that laws would be enacted, forcing them to observe standards and practices they would rather decide for themselves. 

In truth, the majority of Israeli Jews probably do discard products containing leaven prior to the Passover Seder meal. For many, it’s more of a traditional ritual to observe the historical significance of the holiday, but does not necessarily mean they're performing the act out of a personal religious conviction according to the Bible.

And this is the problem! Israelis very much care about tradition, observance and their history. They value continuity and a sense of their unique peoplehood. What they do not like, similar to most others, is feeling they must be observant out of an obligation to law, especially in matters of religious choice.  

In this particular case, justification for the bill was given by stating that observant Jewish individuals have a right to a kosher environment during their hospital stay. While the point may be valid, no one has stopped to consider that, perhaps, during the holiday, Jewish patients could share a room with other Jewish patients, in order to honor the space as they wish. Another consideration involves the sizable non-Jewish staff which exists at many hospitals. They will now be forbidden from bringing any food to work that is not kosher for Passover. 

While those in favor of the bill have said the authority to check foods being brought into hospitals is at the sole discretion of each facility – meaning it’s not certain if it will be enforced – Knesset Member Vladimir Beliak of the opposition’s Yesh Atid party countered by saying, “the bill is ‘ostensibly declarative’ but really ‘another layer of religious coercion that you are foisting on the public that is different from you.’”

It is this type of bill which worries the opposition, as they believe that many others of its type will follow out of an attempt to interject one standard and one expression upon the collective population of Israel, which varied and homogeneous. This gives way to fears concerning the end of the Supreme Court’s intervention, which has often ruled on the side of plurality. The new government endeavors to bring such decisions into the hands of ultra-Orthodox legislators for this reason.  

This may also be the intention behind Lapid's statement that the passage of this bill would “cause there to be much less Passover [observance] and fewer people refraining from eating leavened products in general, as many will see it as religious coercion.”

Again, it’s not that Israelis are against the celebration of Passover, as prescribed in the scriptures. The issue is the legislation of law or being forced to observe a religious directive. When one feels compelled to obey, it removes the personal choice which is supposed to emanate from a heartfelt conviction – and this is what is so egregious to those who are opposed to any religious observance becoming law.

When politicians or government leaders decide what its citizens can say, wear or eat, there is a sense that freedom is lost to those who might have wanted to choose another path. Obedience to God and to His standards remains to be something best done when it comes from a place of free will. Apparently the Almighty thought so as well, since He created mankind with the ability to choose for themselves, as opposed to robotically doing as they were commanded.

While it’s true that free will does often get us into a lot of trouble, it is also responsible for a transparent revelation about where the heart stands and how individuals sincerely want to act. Free will is the one true measurement of authentic choice, made by a deeply held conviction.  

Yes, governments have the authority and means to make laws which force citizens to comply. However, the question is whether or not that law really changes the heart. Most of us, in this case, might be inclined to agree this type of legislation may, indeed, be the catalyst for less observance if, for no other reason, because some believe it infringes upon their personal choice.

It might be worthwhile to remember that Passover represents the passage from slavery into freedom – something always worth celebrating! Wishing everyone a personal sense of freedom this year as they re-enact the blessing of liberty and the faithfulness of God to His people, none of which comes from government, but only from our Creator!

ALL ISRAEL NEWS is committed to fair and balanced coverage and analysis, and honored to publish a wide-range of opinions. That said, views expressed by guest columnists may not necessarily reflect the views of our staff.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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