Avoiding a religious Kulturkampf

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How is it possible that a political party whose primary platform based on hatred of haredim is poised to become the third largest party in the Knesset?

Why are religious Jews regarded with disdain by so many Israelis?

Why are many of our youngsters so alienated from Judaism that they seek spiritual solace in India rather than turn to their own rich heritage and spiritual roots?

The main cause is undoubtedly the cumulative dilution of Jewish culture and civilization from the mainstream educational curriculum. However, much of the blame must also be attributed to those haredi groups who over a long period have alienated the rest of the population with displays of extremism, corruption, and naked pursuit of narrow self-interest at the expense of the community at large.

Take, for example, Health Minister Nissim Dahan’s recent outburst telling secular Jews in the Diaspora to stay away from Israel. Or, on a previous occasion, when he announced that “assimilation, not the Holocaust, was the worst catastrophe to ever befall the Jewish people.”

That such grotesque remarks can be uttered by a religious minister is bad enough. Of no less concern is the deafening wall of silence from the rabbinate and the religious establishment, other than the commendable response of the National Religious Party.

Had such a statement been made 20 years ago, Dahan would have been condemned by the country’s chief rabbis and by a host of religious leaders. He would have been obliged to apologize.

Not any more. The NRP (Mizrachi) in the past occupied the role of bridge-builder to narrow the gap between observant and non-observant Israelis. Regrettably, by concentrating almost exclusively on settlement activity and transforming themselves into a one-dimensional party, they left a vacuum which has been filled by the anti-Zionist haredi bloc whom many Israelis cannot distinguish from other religious Jews.

Unfortunately, assuming the leadership role in the Knesset by becoming the dominant religious group did not create a sense of responsibility among the haredim. Instead, it actually exacerbated the competition between them, vying to demonstrate who could apply Halacha more stringently.

Indeed, the haredi guard of today would probably consider many of its predecessors to have been too permissive. (Only in this “enlightened” age could radical haredim dream up the bizarre notion of arranging for kohanim who are traveling by air to be sealed in body bags when flying over cemeteries in order to avoid defiling themselves.)

But what can be perceived as eccentric or misguided religious behavior becomes totally unacceptable when those in authority attempt to impose their lifestyle on the whole nation.

For example, the haredi veto denying the implementation of the Neeman Committee formula for introducing a conversion framework consistent with Halacha and acceptable to non-Orthodox groups will have tragic consequences for the Jewish future.

There are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who regard themselves as Jews but in halachic terms are not accepted as such. They represent a ticking time bomb which could lead to divisiveness and enormous personal anguish.

Every effort should be made to harness halachic solutions to enable these Israelis to become Jews. Important moves in this direction are being undertaken by a small but dedicated group. However, they face immense obstacles from hard-line haredim occupying key positions who impose extraordinary conditions that deter many intending converts from proceeding.

For example, a number of conversion courts require female applicants to sign undertakings that they will not serve in the army as a condition for being considered as candidates.

TO BE sure, the ultimate source of many of these problems originates in the educational system which institutionalizes tribalization and encourages polarization. This is aggravated by the demographically exploding haredi stream who now educate their children to be even less worldly than their parents, and oblivious to a future obligation to earn a livelihood.

Most democratic and pluralistic societies enable parents to bring up their children according to the religious and cultural tradition of their choice. But at the same time, citizens in such countries, including those in which haredi Jews reside, are obliged to ensure that their children achieve a minimal level of literacy and receive a broad general education. Indeed, in Western countries, particularly in Europe, there are many highly educated haredi professionals.

Yet in Israel, haredim are not obliged to provide their children with any supplementary secular education. As a consequence many are being condemned to a third-world economic existence and will remain recipients of welfare for the rest of their lives.

The greatest source of outrage against the haredi community stems from its evasion of military service. This outrage has increased with the current war, which has placed an even greater burden of service on reservists.

Despite being hawkish by temperament, the haredi community gives the impression that it views IDF service as equivalent to conscription in the army of the Tsar. Both religious and secular Israelis whose children serve in the IDF are not impressed when haredim tell them that their contribution to Israel’s defense is providing the nation with a spiritual shield of prayer and learning. No modern society provides exemption from national military service other than on exceptional grounds of proven pacifism which is not applicable to Judaism.

Some claim that the real reason the haredim seek exemption from military service is their fear of exposing their youngsters to those with different lifestyles, mingling with women, or jeopardizing their matchmaking opportunities. If that were the case, one would have expected their leaders to propose an alternative framework, such as the creation of more haredi army units or some alternative form of national service. Instead, however, they recently rejected a proposal to contribute two weeks’ annual service to Civil Defense.

SOME OF the more intelligent haredi leaders recognize that tensions with Israeli society are close to exploding. They also realize that with the current economic crisis, the country no longer even has the means of providing welfare for an ever-growing host of unproductive youngsters. They are examining new employment opportunities, such as computer programming, to enable haredim to earn a living without compromising their lifestyle.

For the first time some yeshiva students are actually being encouraged to leave kollelim and work instead of living exclusively on the earnings of their wives or relying on sustenance from welfare.

The danger that the mounting pressure from many sectors to bring about legislative change could also lead to the total separation of Judaism from the state is no longer a remote possibility. What is needed, at this late hour, are changes which will ease the frustration and rage of secular Israelis and still preserve the Jewish character of a democratic state.

Such changes must include a constructive haredi contribution to the economy and a genuine haredi involvement in national service. Additional modifications to the current relationship between religion and state will also be required. One of the most complex problems is the need to create a facility for those Israelis unable to marry for halachic reasons.

The challenge is to provide a solution which overcomes the off-shore subterfuges, but also avoids creating a blanket regime of civil marriage which would lead to social chaos and plant the seeds for painful divisions among future generations of Israelis unable to marry within a traditional religious framework.

The current legislation relating to Shabbat prohibitions should also be reviewed to provide more flexibility for leisure activities by non-observant Jews. This would necessitate enabling additional private transport and entertainment to operate without disrupting the Shabbat atmosphere within local
ized observant communities.
However, red lines must be drawn to prevent any relaxation in the prohibition of trade and commerce beyond what is strictly limited to servicing leisure activities. If the current restrictions on trade or commerce are liberalized, it would mean that Jews observing Shabbat would find themselves required to make the same financial sacrifices they faced in the Diaspora. They would in fact be reverting to galut (exile) in their own homeland.

To bring about such changes, new institutions must be created to enable rabbis and religious activists to be elected to national leadership positions without effectively being subject to haredi approval. The need is for rabbinical leaders willing to face the necessity for interpreting Halacha in order to cope with the requirements of a modern state without looking over their shoulders in fear of being criticized or condemned by radical haredim.

Today there is a groundswell throughout the country that the time has come to confront the haredi political parties whose perceived lack of spirituality, primitive policies of extortion, anti-Zionism, and corruption has enraged the nation. This will almost certainly happen if the new political constellation after the elections denies haredim the opportunity to exploit the balance of power, as has been the case until now.

The obvious danger is that the pent up hatred and resentment could explode and lead to an open Kulturkampf resulting in a complete separation of religion and state which would be irreversible. Should that happen, Israel would lose its unique Jewish character and be transformed into just another state.

Ideally, under these circumstances, initiatives for constructive change should originate from within the religious Zionist camp itself rather than having changes imposed by elements insensitive to the need to maintain the Jewish character of the state. Five years ago Meimad had constructive ideas in this area. Having now become a mere appendage to Labor and endorsing the transfer of jurisdiction of the Temple Mount to the Palestinians, they have effectively marginalized themselves from the religious Zionist community and become irrelevant.

The NRP, having in recent weeks signaled a desire to revert to more moderate policies, could restore its traditional role and once more serve as the centrist religious unifying element in the country, if it moved in this direction. But if it follows the regrettable pattern of recent years, it will again succumb to intimidation by the haredim and sideline such difficult problems.

Should the NRP be unwilling to move in this direction, individual religious Zionists should take independent action. Indeed, one could even argue that if religious political parties are not involved, the chance for winning over the public would be greater. Especially if Israelis can be convinced that maintaining the Jewish character of the country need not be synonymous with religious coercion and that the treasures of Judaism have no association with the odious activities related to party politics.

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