Retreat from reason

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High birthrates have substantially increased the number of observant Jews. Yeshivot are blooming and there is a widespread increase in ritual observance. A sense of triumphalism prevails among Orthodox Israelis.

But there is a disconcerting aspect to these developments. Twenty years ago I published a booklet titled “Religious Extremism: A Threat to the Jewish People” which was widely circulated in various languages. It expressed concern that religious moderates were becoming an extinct species and being eclipsed by haredi and nationalist zealots.

Alas, today this has become a reality.

At the time of the creation of the state, national-religious activists had marginalized the anti-Zionist haredim and become full partners in the Zionist enterprise. They sought to reach out to the non-observant. They synthesized traditional Judaism with modernity and urged rabbis to reinterpret a Diaspora-based Halacha in line with the requirements of a modern Jewish state.

However, today the voices of moderation are silent. Zealotry has become the order of the day.

The decline of moderation can be traced to the influence of haredi teachers employed in national-religious educational institutions. That coincided with a trend among Israeli rabbis to compete with one another in demonstrating greater stringency in halachic interpretation of ritual observance: for example, the enforcement of stricter separation between the sexes and even attempts to impose a broad application of kol isha – prohibiting men from listening to women sing or act.

A more bizarre example was the promulgation of an edict for kohanim flying in aircraft over cemeteries to seal themselves in body bags in order not to be defiled.

Of course, religious texts can usually be unearthed to justify just about any exotic or stringent prohibition. But the application of extreme “piety” in ritual observance was traditionally an option for the individual, not an edict imposed on the entire people.

Furthermore, without exception, whenever observance conflicted with critical social and economic issues, our sages creatively reinterpreted Halacha to find acceptable solutions. Today this no longer applies, because many rabbis, isolated in yeshivot, have scant contact with people in everyday life and are unconcerned about the impact of their more stringent interpretations.

The problem is further aggravated by the growing trend of anti-Zionist haredi elements displacing national-religious elements in state-sponsored rabbinical institutions. This is exemplified by the Chief Rabbinate, which has been effectively hijacked by haredim who nevertheless reject its authority as an extension of the Zionist state.

This has manifested itself in inflexible responses to central problems such as conversion and other halachic issues related to the state. The latest and possibly most explosive crisis relates to shmita – the biblical injunction requiring land owned by Jews in Eretz Israel to remain fallow every seventh year. Under haredi pressure, the Chief Rabbinate authorized local rabbinical authorities to withdraw kashrut certification from restaurants purchasing their vegetables from farmers adopting the heter mechira – a halachic device approved a century ago by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, providing for the fictitious sale of land to non-Jews in order to comply with requirements of the shmita year.

If the decision by the current Chief Rabbinate is not revoked, it will have catastrophic economic consequences for Israeli farmers, consumers and the entire nation.

That would further exacerbate hostility against haredim, who are already perceived by most Israelis as being preoccupied with the naked pursuit of their interests at the expense of the larger community, and for displaying contempt for the sacred icons of the state. They are also condemned as draft-evaders who view the IDF in the same manner as Jews regarded the Tsar’s army.

Nor are there signs that these problems are likely to ease in the years to come. On the contrary, desperate to obtain support for his tottering government, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently agreed to provide the haredi school sector with funding equivalent to that of the state school system, with no obligation to incorporate core curriculum subjects. Thus today, in contrast to the example set by Maimonides, one in four Israeli schoolchildren are denied any secular education and condemned to a Third-World existence.

The national-religious community was also not immune from extremism. Commencing with the euphoria which prevailed following the Six Day War, some national-religious rabbis and laymen, intoxicated with messianic fervor, adopted a one-dimensional concentration on the land to the virtual exclusion of other issues. Some even endeavored to translate their views into halachic edicts.

The most zealous concluded that despite halachic edicts mandating obedience to civil law, in order to promote God’s will one was entitled to suspend the laws of the state and reject civil authority. Although limited to a handful of individuals, this attitude became a prescription for violence.

It commenced with the forming of the so-called underground and culminated in distorted interpretations of din rodef, which paved the way for a madman’s justification to assassinate a prime minister.

Needless to say, all forms of religious extremism are intrinsically linked to a rejection of modernity. Although Bar-Ilan University, as well as organizations like Bet Morasha, Eretz Hemdah, Tzomet, Tzohar and any number of religious women’s institutes are endeavoring to promote a synthesis of Judaism with modernity, Israel has no counterpart to American Jewry’s Yeshiva University, which produces rabbis versed in the secular as well as the religious world. In fact, many Israeli rabbis lack high-school diplomas, not to mention university degrees.

The retreat from reason was exemplified by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, an undisputed Sephardi haredi halachic giant, who recently outraged most Israelis by proclaiming that casualties from the Lebanon War represented divine retribution for failure to adhere to ritual observance.

In similar vein, a small faction of national-religious rabbis earlier proclaimed that God would prevent unilateral disengagement from Gaza from being implemented. They even went to the bizarre lengths of reserving banquet halls in order to celebrate the Almighty’s anticipated intervention.

More recently, this revolt against reason climaxed when a handful of zealots, bitterly disappointed and traumatized by the Gaza withdrawal, made headlines by forging a common front with haredim, rejecting the army and proclaiming that the state did not deserve to survive. These extremists (who should not be confused with those refusing to obey orders to dismantle settlements) expressed confidence that the Almighty would intervene and protect His people without the IDF.

The extremism flourishing at various levels of the Orthodox spectrum has undoubtedly intensified polarization between the Orthodox and non-observant, who rarely interact with one another. Most secular Israelis have little appreciation of the major contribution made by the moderate national-religious sector and are inclined to condemn all religious Jews as fanatics, without distinction.

What is to be done? The state must legislate that all haredi school children are obliged to undergo core educational curriculum requirements, as is the case with their counterparts throughout the Diaspora.

Instead of indulging in shady political deals and providing concessions to anti-Zionist groups, the government should ensure that state funds for religious functionaries and institutions be directed toward the moderate and Zionist sectors of the religious community.

In order to break the increasing stranglehold of haredim on religious institutions, national-religious moderates need to be at the vanguard of those protesting against the imposition of haredi standards on the entire nation.

Most importantly, they must support the empowering of moderate rabbis like Rabbi Yosef Carmel, Rabbi Benjamin Lau, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and others who have courageously expressed a willingness to lead a revolt against the Chief Rabbinate in relation to their handling of shmita and parallel issues. But they cannot succeed without public support.

As Rabbi Lau says, “It is unacceptable for rabbis to scream while the public remains apathetic.”

The potentially catastrophic repercussions of the shmita crisis on the state should act as a catalyst for exchanging the current, haredi-controlled religious leadership for responsible, moderate rabbis, attuned to the people and motivated by a genuine desire to harmonize the application of Halacha with the national interest.

The writer, a veteran international Jewish leader, chairs the Israel Diaspora-Israel Relations Committee of the Jewish Center for Public Affairs. [email protected]

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