It is ironic that with Jewish observance and spiritual values at unprecedentedly high levels in Israeli society, the established religious leadership has sunk to its lowest nadir.
There are many wise, creative and worldly Israeli rabbis but in most cases, they are marginalized or even dismissed as being “Reform.”
Compared to their predecessors, the current chief rabbis are mediocrities. When headed by spiritual giants like Rabbis Isaac Herzog and Shlomo Goren, the Chief Rabbinate courageously reviewed Halachah built up over 2,000 years of exile and sought ways and means to blend and harmonize it with the requirements of the modern industrial State of Israel.
Sadly, today’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi was selected as a puppet of the extreme wing of the haredim, who themselves regard the role of the Chief Rabbinate with utter contempt. He and his Sephardi counterpart dismiss the revolution brought about by the creation of a Jewish state and make no effort to harmonize Halachah with the modern needs of the state. They adamantly reject Torah im derech eretz (worldliness) and aggressively adopt the most stringent interpretations of Jewish law.
Their vulgar, boorish language and vile curses directed against the non-Orthodox have succeeded in creating a crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations. Their bizarre intrigues and broken undertakings in relation to access to the Western Wall demean the Jewish people.
The ultimate source of ultra-Orthodox control rests in retention of the political balance of power and the ability to extort vast sums of taxpayers’ funds from the state for their one-dimensional projects. It also enables them to indoctrinate their followers to engage in full-time Torah study in lieu of earning a livelihood, thus becoming lifelong recipients of welfare. They also discourage young adults from enrolling in the army. Draft evaders from this sector grew by 15% last year.
The situation is becoming explosive and statistics published this month note the vast increase in numbers attending haredi schools that provide no core secular education.
This has potentially catastrophic demographic and economic consequences because the shrinking productive sectors of the community will ultimately revolt against providing long-term welfare payments to able-bodied haredim.
Yet, in the current political climate, non-haredi Israelis are powerless to influence events because our dysfunctional political system pressures the secular political parties to succumb to haredi extortion to retain or gain political power.
Those who should be at the forefront of the battle against religious extremism are the leaders of Habayit Hayehudi — but they have abandoned their primary obligation of promoting religious Zionism as a unifying factor in the state. They have become so deeply entrenched in politics and focused on the settlement issue that they have neglected the soul of Israel. To his credit, Naftali Bennett as education minister is promoting greater appreciation of Jewish heritage in the secular school curriculum; he should be concentrating more on this rather than engaging in battles for individual political supremacy.
Bennett has failed to confront the extremes of the haredi establishment. He has not only deferred to extremist haredi initiatives but has nurtured the hardalim within his party, the influential elements seeking to prove, as dedicated Zionists, that they are equally or even more zealous in their interpretation of aspects of Halachah than the haredim.
They have become totally obsessed with gender issues in which they impose unprecedented standards of separation, modesty and dress codes that even the most pious former leading religious Zionists never required.
They insist on halachic interpretations prohibiting males from hearing women sing, which were formulated in an era when singers were considered courtesans and which are completely inconsistent with modern reality. There are legitimate halachic concerns with mixed-sex combat units, which moderate rabbis also recognize. However, some radical religious Zionists virulently oppose women serving in any army unit.
One of their outspoken charismatic leaders, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, co-head of the prestigious Bnei David pre-military religious academy, created outrage with a series of derisive statements vilifying female soldiers, claiming that the IDF “has driven our girls crazy. … They enter as Jews but they are not Jews by the time they leave.” He was supported by the chairman of the Shas party, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, and several radical religious Zionists, including Rabbis Dov Lior and Zalman Melamed.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman demanded Levinstein’s resignation, asserting that his outlook is “in total contravention of the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” If his resignation was not forthcoming, he threatened to revoke state recognition of the pre-military academy. Education Minister Bennett criticized Levinstein’s comments as “wretched and disparaging” but adamantly opposed any effort to suspend the academy’s recognition.
Allowing that there are no calls to close state-supported universities when radical left-wing professors publicly support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, some consider it hypocritical to call for the closing down of a religious Zionist institution whose head, Rabbi Eli Sadan, only last year was awarded the Israel Prize for life achievement. In response to Lieberman, Sadan also reiterated his opposition to women serving in combat units but insisted that any woman serving in the IDF deserved respect and was a righteous woman.
However, this is not a question of freedom of expression. It rather represents a challenge to the religious Zionist leadership. Bennett should have been the first to state that Levinstein had to resign. Such crude remarks by a spiritual leader and educator make Levinstein unfit to retain a leadership role in a prestigious national religious pre-army academy that sets the moral standards for impressionable youngsters. There may be differences regarding the role of women in the army, but there should be no tolerance for anyone denigrating the increasing proportion of religious women who opt to serve the nation by choosing military service.
In this complex potpourri, it is extremely difficult to provide religious Zionist youngsters with a worldly and balanced education and upbringing.
There are outstanding rabbis in the community but they face constant opposition from the haredi establishment.
Tzohar, the organization of moderate religious Zionist Orthodox rabbis, has made major contributions in providing religious services for those who have no religious educational background. But they decline to confront the Chief Rabbinate out of a misplaced fear that this would contribute to the further denigration of religious Judaism.
A bright light in the arena was the creation of an independent rabbinical court by religious Zionist rabbis to specifically challenge the monopoly relating to conversions imposed by the restrictive haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate. The highly respected director of the Birkat Moshe hesder yeshiva in Maaleh Adumim, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, heads this court, which includes Rabbi David Stav, chairman of Tzohar, Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and others.
It is making headway in terms of conversions but faces a major challenge with over 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are halachically considered non-Jews and who should be enabled to convert to avoid tragic social conflicts on a myriad of issues when they marry. This court is also reluctant to stand up and confront the Chief Rabbinate on other, broader areas that are currently undermining the religious status quo of the country.
Other organizations doing excellent work include Beit Morasha, headed by Professor Benny Ish-Shalom, which inculcates moderate religious standards into the educational system, and ITIM, run by Rabbi Seth Farber, which helps converts in the struggle to navigate the religious authorities’ bureaucracy.
On the more academic side, Eretz Hemdah, an institution headed by Rabbi Yosef Carmel, is an impressive Talmudic college constructively reviewing halachic issues that the Chief Rabbinate is inclined to ignore or reject.
It is incredible that, despite the office of the Chief Rabbinate, which deters rather than inspires spirituality, the country is nevertheless experiencing a major spiritual revival with a greater appreciation of the Jewish heritage and tradition among rank-and-file Israelis than ever before.
Regrettably, until there is political reform, the haredim will continue to inhibit progress. And unless Habayit Hayehudi rejects its extremist elements, it will not succeed in promoting the moderate religious Zionism that should be its principle raison d’être.
Economics will ultimately lead to an upheaval but while the status quo persists, the nation is obliged to pay a bitter price. The only solution would be a mutual undertaking by the government and opposition parties to prevent their exploitation by the haredim.
Regrettably, the prospects for political parties to agree to any such undertaking at the expense of their own self-serving interests are inconceivable — and thus they bear the responsibility for the hijacking of state religious instrumentalities by the haredi extremists.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post  and Israel Hayom