Jerusalem (Sep. 22)
Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir’s recommendation yesterday for “experimental excavations” to determine whether ancient Jewish burial grounds would be disturbed by the controversial archaeological digs at the City of David was promptly welcomed by Education Minister Zevulun Hammer. But it was angrily denounced by Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren who accused Zamir of “casuistry to justify desecration of graves.”
The Attorney General’s legal opinion, made public Sunday, held that the evidence presented so far by the Chief Rabbinate to support its halachic ruling that the dig site is an old Jewish cemetery “is not sufficient” grounds to revoke the excavation license awarded years ago to a Hebrew University archaeological team by the government Department of Antiquities.
However, Zamir stated, the rabbis do have a great deal of material evidence that Jewish graves possibly exist at the site and therefore a careful scientific examination is called for before the status of the dig license can be finally determined.
Hammer, a leader of the National Religious Party and an Orthodox Jew, hailed Zamir’s opinion for showing “sensitivity to all sides” in the controversy. He indicated that he would accept and implement the proposal. Goren’s fury was aroused apparently by Zamir’s flat statement that halachic authority was not the final arbiter and cannot supersede the laws of the secular State.
ELEMENTS IN ZAMIR’S RULING
Zamir’s opinion echoed the 2-1 ruling by the Supreme Court last week that the rabbinate has no legal right to determine state policy. The ruling up-held an interim injunction overturning Hammer’s suspension of the dig which Goren and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had condemned earlier as a violation of halacha.
Zamir made it clear that only on the basis of firm findings by “experimental excavations” could the Department of Antiquities, a department of the Ministry of Education and Culture, legally revoke the excavation license in the designated area of the City of David.
He went on to state in his opinion that the rabbinate’s halachic rulings can be accepted as binding by individuals on a voluntary basis but they cannot be accepted as binding or as influential by organs of the State whose very existence rests on and is defined and limited by State laws.
The Attorney General’s opinion and the fact that the Hebrew University team headed by Prof. Yigal Shiloh will end the season’s diggings this week, are expected to defuse the controversy which had triggered violent demonstrations by religious zealots in Israel and abroad. It is also expected that the results of the scientific investigation, if properly conducted, will be accepted as final by the vast majority of Israelis, secular and religious.
But many observers see the controversy over the dig as only symptomatic of a larger power struggle between the Orthodox establishment which seeks to have the State impose religious strictures and the secular majority which vigorously resists such attempts.