Collapse reveals culture of rule-bending

rA Jerusalem wedding hall gave way during a reception late Thursday, killing 23 and injuring 300.

For a split second, Amir Lipsky thought the disappearing floor was a special effect put on by the wedding organizers. Then, his wife, Haya, recalls, "suddenly there was a hole."

The couple gripped each other and slid - "down, down, down," Mr. Lipsky says - into blackness, cascading rubble, and confusion. A joyous celebration at a Jerusalem wedding hall last Thursday night turned into a national calamity: 23 people were killed and 300 injured as the dance floor collapsed, apparently due to shoddy construction.

This week the Lipskys are recovering in a Jerusalem hospital, mourning their dead friends, and beginning to grapple with what may have caused the disaster. "It's anger at people who don't care about anything but money," says Mrs. Lipsky.

As Jews celebrate the holiday marking God's revelation of His law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, a torrent of commentary is fixing the blame for the tragedy not just on greed, but on the national character.

"The average Israeli is afraid to feel like a sucker," wrote Uzi Benziman, a columnist for Israel's leading newspaper, Haaretz. "So [he or she] scorns the rules and regulations and regards the law as an area of ever-expandable space in which to maneuver, outwit, bypass, and bribe, if necessary, in order to achieve more, and to make the competition green with envy."

Sociologist Menachem Friedman agrees that "there is something in the Israeli personality or psyche that says you don't have to regard the law in its letters. You can make - you have to make - a detour."

And structural engineer Emmanuel Sommer says the building codes and regulations themselves aren't the problem - it is the lack of official enforcement of the laws on the books. "This should have happened many more times," says a somber Mr. Sommer, who has worked in Jerusalem for 40 years.

How is it that in a nation that enshrines a religion whose essence is obedience to law - the commandments transmitted by God to Moses and then annotated by generations of Jewish sages - the national inclination is to circumvent the rules?

One answer may lie in the practice of Judaism itself, which has long embraced the loophole as much as it mandates obedience to a way of life that sets Jews apart.

"You have so many rules in the Jewish legal texts," says one Israeli scholar who declined to be identified, "that you have to make a hierarchy" of which ones to obey.

The exploitation of the perceived loopholes in Jewish law, or Halakha, are told and retold, often with a sense of delight in the creativity involved. In their 1998 book "Jews," Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer recount some of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh's efforts to reconcile Jewish Orthodoxy with 19th-century living. "During the three-week mourning period for the destruction of both the First and the Second Temples," the authors write, "when Jews are forbidden to wear fresh clothes because a new shirt is a mark of well-being, some of Samson Raphael Hirsch's more affluent followers put on and took off 21 shirts in a row on the eve of this period, so that, technically, they would not be putting on a fresh shirt during the mourning period."

Halakha forbids Jews, for example, from owning any leavened goods during Passover or operating machinery on the Sabbath. From this has arisen the practice of selling one's bread and other products to a non-Jew for a pittance and buying them back after the holiday, and the institution of the Sabbath elevator, which is programmed to run continuously and stop at all floors.

Some extremely observant Jews scorn such practices and try to maintain a more literal respect for Halakha, but these same Jews also manifest a lack of respect for civil law, arguing that Torah is sufficient.

Professor Friedman, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, says that a tendency to make detours also engenders a very positive sense of flexibility. Israeli soldiers, he says, are taught that nothing goes according to plan, so they must be ready to innovate according to the situation. "This goes on with Israelis even after the Army," he adds. Their inherently optimistic attitude, he says "is 'we'll adjust it, and everything will be OK in the end.'"

Of course, sometimes things aren't OK, as at the Versailles wedding hall, where a recent renovation appears to have removed a crucial supporting column. Israeli police have so far detained 10 people, including construction contractors and the hall's owners, for investigation. There are reports of a thwarted effort to remove construction plans from public offices immediately after the collapse.

"Everyone wants to earn more and pay less and that's what happens," notes Haya Lipsky. "Maybe they wanted to put in more tables."

It may be that this built-in flexibility, however booby-trapped, is necessary for Israelis. Jews immigrated to Palestine in the first half of the last century in defiance of British restrictions. Today, some of Israel's neighbors continue to maintain that it is an illegitimate state.

Frequent wars have characterized the state's short history, and now the Israelis' most intimate neighbors, the Palestinians, are fighting them night and day. Some analysts say a cold-eyed assessment of this reality and a rigorous respect for international law might make it impossible for Israelis to exist. So many Israeli Jews finagle, and they trust everything will be OK in the end. But when it comes to building codes, says Mr. Benziman, the columnist, "I would prefer that Israels learn to be more obedient to a certain degree."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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