Naftali Bennett’s election illustrates that Torah observance is not an inherent barrier to serving in the top position of the Israeli government.
Since Israel declared its independence in 1948, the top political leadership has largely been represented by figures from the so-called “secular” community — secular but committed Jews who understand and embrace the importance and sanctity of our traditions.
Still, the fact that Israel’s new prime minister hails from the religious Zionist community deserves to be celebrated by all segments of Israeli society, as well as supporters of our country from all over the world.
Naftali Bennett’s election illustrates that Torah observance is not an inherent barrier to serving in the top position of the Israeli government. At the same time, the fact that it took this long for someone who publicly promotes religious Zionism means some questions about the compatibility of personal practice and public role are to be expected.
Of course, issues will need to be addressed on a personal and case-by-case basis. On this very practical level, there are specific halachic (Jewish law) issues that the prime minister will need to confront, and I am confident that he and his staff will do so with humility and insight.
The Jewish tradition dictates that even the highest-level public servant, such as a king, or in this case the prime minister, is not above the law, and has the same halachic requirements as every subject or citizen. This includes upholding the halachic principle pikuach nefesh, saving a life, a rule that takes priority over nearly every other matter of Jewish law.
The responsibility for the lives of others provides a leader with both the permission and the obligation to give pikuach nefesh the utmost priority in a more practical way than is needed by most people, and with regard to most of Halachah. Certainly, there is great potential for conflict between pikuach nefesh and, for example, keeping Shabbat — and it is here that a leader’s requirement to keep people safe exceeds even his requirement to observe Shabbat.
The potential for prioritizing pikuach nefesh to complicate Shabbat observance gives rise to the very specific halachic question of whether it would be preferable to retain non-Jews to act in certain roles over Shabbat and enable the Jew to avoid transgression. However, because the prime minister makes lifesaving decisions on a regular basis, he cannot be dependent on the involvement of a non-Jew.
True, consideration could potentially be given to setting up halachically-designed communications systems ahead of sunset on Friday. Such a system would be acceptable only if it could be determined with certainty that it would have no negative impact, whether operational or practical. The priority is first and foremost preserving and defending human lives.
In addition to issues of Shabbat, the prime minister is in every way the public face of the nation and that also has halachic implications. For example, during the times of year on the Jewish calendar designated for collective national mourning (such as for the destruction of the two Temples), when many halachically observant men refrain from shaving in a demonstration of mourning, the prime minister would be permitted to shave and dress in a respectable fashion as befitting a world leader. Global expectations as to one’s outward appearance are clear, and being presentable to the world is vital for the daily functioning of a figure on that stage.
When it comes to a specific need for a prime minister to act in a certain way that is related to his performance of the job, the underlying concept that drives halachic practice is one of accommodation. This requires a level of wisdom and discernment on the premier’s part, but showing the public his respect for Halachah will allow our traditions to be revealed in positive ways never before possible.
Though questions of religious observance while running a country might spotlight a conflict between the two, the country should focus instead 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 Halachah, and the way it can be drawn to apply to any circumstance.
In that vein, the public awareness of how the prime minister can function fully within the guidelines of Halachah will expose more people to the encompassing nature of Jewish law.
Deliberations and debates that were once the purview of only certain rarefied elements of Jewish society are likely to become of interest to the broader public in ways that I firmly believe will allow them to better recognize and appreciate the beauty and meaning of our halachic-legal system.
I believe that we should only be thankful for these political developments that are providing this opportunity.
Rabbi David Stav is the chief rabbi of Shoham, Israel, and founder and chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization.