Challenges of Religious Zionism

The Challenges facing Religious Zionism

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Lecture to Rabbinical Council of America

Jerusalem, 24/3/09

My objective in this outline is to review the changes that have impacted on religious Zionism over the past 40 years and identify the challenges currently facing the movement.

Mizrachi was created as a movement to enable religious Jews to become partners in building a Jewish state and to counteract the anti Zionist rabbis who opposed Jewish sovereignty until the arrival of the Messiah.

In the early days of the state, Mizrahi emphasized the need to reinterpret Halacha which had evolved over 2000 years in exile, and harmonize it with the requirements of a modern industrial Jewish state. The objective was to ensure that Israel would be built on traditional Jewish foundations. It created a network of religious Zionist schools.

Mizrachi emphasized Rambam’s “golden path” (shvil hazahav) which espoused moderation and shunned extremism. Until recently it was also inclined towards modern orthodoxy, maintaining that Torah Umada strengthened our understanding of the Divine truths contained in the Torah. It sought to attract non-observant Jews to Judaism by example rather than by coercion.

The political orientation tended to be centrist emphasizing the virtues of unity, ahavat Eretz Yisrael and ahavat Klal Yisrael. Then, as today, it exerted a disproportionate influence to its numbers and served as a bridge between all sections of Israeli society especially the secular and haredi streams. In the years immediately following the creation of the state, the national religious movement was generally regarded as one of the most constructive forces in Jewish life, both within Israel and in the Diaspora.

Alas, Mizrachi was too often burdened with a sense of inferiority. Many of its adherents sent their children to haredi educational institutions and began utilizing haredim as teachers within their own schools. This brought about an infusion of hostility towards reason and secular knowledge. That few Rabbis in Israel received a higher secular education made it more difficult to resist these influences.

As a consequence, some of the modern orthodox rabbis were marginalized and rabbis in even Zionist yeshivot tended to concentrate more on the minutiae of ritual observance rather than on life-related issues. Some, fearful of being accused of being too mekil (lenient) in their application of Jewish life competed with one another to demonstrate that they were more machmir (rigid). Many adapted stringent halachic interpretations of everyday life exemplified especially in regard to stricter separation of the sexes. Needless to say, the application of extreme piety in ritual observance has always been an option for the individual. But in recent times Rabbis isolated in yeshivot, disconnected from the people and unable to directly appreciate the impact of their rulings, have begun imposing stringent edicts on the entire nation.

The rejection of torah u’mada was also a manifestation of haredi influence. It was exemplified only a few years ago by a small but influential group of national religious rabbis who proclaimed that Hashem would directly intervene to prevent unilateral disengagement from Gaza. They even went to the bizarre lengths of reserving banquet halls to celebrate the Almighty’s anticipated veto of the government’s policy.

Over the past few decades, the weakening of the National Religious Party in the Knesset combined with its complete absorption into the right wing camp, substantially eroded its political clout. As a consequence the internal hardalization was accompanied by an aggressive and effective haredi takeover of religious state instrumentalities. This was accelerated by the shameful behavior of the secular ruling parties who were willing to trade religious Zionist control to the haredim in return for their political support.

The process was accelerated by the Sharon and Olmert government determination to punish the National Religious Party for its justified opposition to the Gaza disengagement. As a consequence, haredi rabbis, many unsuitable or selected on the basis of cronyism and family relationships, assumed control of key state rabbinical institutions and courts. Even the Chief Rabbinate, a former bastion of religious Zionism, was effectively hijacked by the haredim who installed their puppets.

The repercussions surfaced when, under instruction from his haredi masters, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, tried to bypass the heter mechira for Shmita which had applied since the time of Chief Rabbi Kook. He did this by giving approval for local rabbis to restrict kosher certification to establishments exclusively using agricultural produce from abroad or from the Palestinian Authority. Only after religious Zionist rabbis threatened to create their own independent Bet Din, and after the High Court ruled against the haredim, was a catastrophe for Israeli agriculture averted.

But the most shameful and explosive by product of haredi control happened last year with Rabbi Avraham Sherman of the haredi Rabbinical High Court. Rabbi Sherman’s stringent outlook had already previously been exemplified by a ruling in which he had stipulated that a deaf person could not be converted. This time Rabbi Sherman accused Rabbi Haim Druckman, the head of the Conversion Authority, of expediting fraudulent conversions and proclaimed that conversions undertaken by Zionist rabbis like Druckman were invalid and should be annulled. He also announced that the conversions of those who failed to observe Jewish rituals could be retrospectively revoked even 15 years later, a cruel and unprecedented ruling in Jewish law.

The national religious camp was even further outraged when Prime Minister Olmert’s Office announced the retirement of Rabbi Druckman on the pretext of his “advanced age”, a transparently shameful attempt to appease the haredim and cooperate in the dismantling of the Conversion Authority, a body which the government itself had sponsored in order to overcome ultra-Orthodox intransigency. This finally convinced rabbis from the national camp of the need to publicly confront haredi extremism.

I quote from Rabbi Benjamin Lau:

Religious Zionism has so far been restrained in its criticism of the ultra-Orthodox, out of a feeling of respect for Torah sages and a desire to maintain a united religious camp. No longer! In honor of the state’s 60th birthday we must free Israel, strengthen the Zionist camp and establish religious services and religious courts that are fundamentally linked with the values of the country in which they operate…There is no logic in allowing the ultra-Orthodox to run the rabbinical courts. There are many rabbis in Israel who serve in the army, send their children to the army, and are full partners in all the challenges of Israeli society….The country deserves to have religious court judges who are committed to its future and its fate, and to free itself of judges estranged from the public.”

Now I turn to the other crisis confronting religious Zionism.

Most religious Zionists viewed the restoration of Jewish statehood as a manifestation of the Divine presence. They regarded themselves as bearing a mission to unify the nation and invested much of their effort into trying to build bridges between disparate sections such as the non-observant and the haredim. In an age of increasing cynicism they remained fervent patriots and their children were often perceived as role models in the army and all walks of Israeli and Diaspora life, contributing to the welfare of Israel, far in excess of their numerical representation.

When the Israeli political consensus supported the creation of settlements, religious Zionists became the vanguard of land reclamation, transforming barren sand dunes into flourishing garden settlements and assuming a role reminiscent of the halutzim in the early days of the Yishuv. When the intifada erupted they and their families were on the frontlines and suffered more casualties from terror than any other sector of Israeli society.

Yet alas, their noble efforts indirectly paved the way for the tensions which to this day casts a shadow in their relations with many Israelis.

The problem had its genesis with a number of idealistic but over zealous rabbis influenced by Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook who adopted a messianic outlook towards settling the land. They were convinced that their interpretation of Halacha and Jewish history was infallible and that what Hashem demanded was a halachic imperative beyond the realm of rational discussion or consultation.

Capitalizing on the wave of idealism generated in the wake of the Six Day War, their faction which called itself Gush Emunim hijacked the National Religious Party and effectively transformed it into a one dimensional party, concentrating virtually exclusively on the land and settlements.

As a consequence, traditional Mizrachi priorities like nurturing Jewish values and concern for the “soul” of Israel were neglected. Ironically, it was precisely when the NRP controlled the Education Ministry that post-Zionism made major headway, infiltrating the secular school curriculum, undermining Zionism, and promoting distorted narratives regarding the Zionist struggle to establish a Jewish state. Indeed, had the NRP then not concentrated almost exclusively on settlements, post-Zionism may not have succeeded in making the substantial inroads which subsequently paved the way for many of the disasters of the past decade.

The movement was also infiltrated by an “eish zara” (an alien flame) of small extremist factions. The first manifestation was the machteret (underground) of the 1980s in which idealistic youngsters, including Bnei Akiva graduates, became involved in illegal activities including the assassination of Arabs.

It reached its climax with the murder of Yitzchak Rabin whose loathsome assassin saw himself fulfilling “a sacred duty” and acting “on Hashem’s instructions”. Of course religious Zionists never endorsed murder. But the fact remains that Yigal Amir grew up in a middle-class religious Yemenite household, served in a Golani army unit, was educated in a Hesder Yeshiva, worked as a volunteer teaching Judaism in Russia and when he committed the crime was a law student at Bar Ilan university and enrolled in the university’s Kollel. Until the assassination, the demented Amir would have qualified as a religious Zionist role model.

The most recent extremist outburst came in the wake of the final collapse of the dream of Greater Israel and the dismantlement of the Gush Katif settlements. This happened at a time when the media demonized religious Zionist settlers who were displaced from their homes, and most of whom to this day have yet to be compensated with permanent accommodation and new livelihoods.

This led to the emergence of another small group of zealots, who questioned whether the state should still be viewed as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption (reishit zmichat geulatenu). Some went further, alleging that, in religious terms, Israel had become a failed state and adopted the approach of anti-Zionist haredim, challenging the legitimacy of the state. They refused to celebrate Independence Day, sing “Hatikva” or display the Israeli flag. They objected to the recital of the prayer for the welfare of the state and remained seated when it was recited in synagogues. Some even refused to serve in the IDF. Although limited to tiny pockets of extremists, one must not underestimate the potential impact of such fanatical views on increasingly alienated impressionable youngsters.

Fortunately responsible leaders are conscious of the gravity of the problem. Rabbi Haim Druckman celebrating Independence Day as “an enormous gift from the Almighty” described such zealots as heretics. The Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria insisted that their followers distinguish between the acts of a government and loyalty to the state.

To sum up: religious Zionists today confront an existential crisis and may become extinct unless they absorb the lessons from the failures of the past.

The demise of religious Zionism would be tragic for the nation because even today they include the most devoted and patriotic segments of Israeli society. The statistics attesting to the disproportionately high involvement of their youngsters in IDF combat units is only one aspect of their crucial role. They are the cement binding disparate factions in Israeli society, ranging from the ultra-Orthodox to the secular. They also represent beacons of idealism and committed Zionism in a society which has become increasingly dominated by consumerism and self-gratification.

Israel is today undergoing a profoundly bitter Kulturkampf – a cultural civil war, which will determine whether it is to be a Jewish state or a “state for all its citizens,” a state devoid of Jewish values. This was exemplified by the concentration of venom against religious Zionists in the recent front page Haaretz campaign accusing the IDF of indulging in war crimes against civilians which were subsequently totally discredited and proven to be based on rumors and gossip. What made these false reports akin to a medieval blood libel were the allegations that soldiers had been brainwashed by fanatical rabbis to indulge in killing sprees.

Such outrageous libels could never have taken place were it not for the deplorable ignorance and lack appreciation or understanding of the Jewish heritage amongst many of the new breed of Israeli political leaders. The extent of the dilution of Jewish values amongst some of them would justify depicting them as Hebrew-speaking Canaanites rather than Jews.

To counter these trends, religious Zionists must avoid relegating themselves to isolated enclaves and reconnect with the broader Jewish world. They must take positive steps within the halachic framework to review with compassion and humility questions of personal status such as marriage, divorce and conversion. They must seek to provide maximum accommodation and dignity to all sections of society, as befits a Jewish democratic state.

They must reverse the trend to haredization within their own ranks and renew the encounter with modernity. They must encourage the emergence of moderate rabbis and teachers to ensure that the younger generation is not radicalized. They should publicly reject rabbis who try to transform political issues into halachic edicts. They must strive to overcome the vulgarity and violence which has begun to infiltrate a movement that prided itself on tolerance and educating by example, rather than by coercion.

They should endeavor to create an educational and cultural climate in which Jewish spiritual values rather than Zen or other Eastern mystical movements attract non-observant Israeli youngsters. They must endeavor to maintain the beacon of idealism in a society which has become swept up with consumerism.

Religious Zionists must aggressively distance themselves from anti-Zionist haredim who concentrate primarily on promoting their own parochial interests, often refusing to assume the full obligations of citizenship. They must also condemn as contrary to Jewish religious values both the snowballing haredi draft exemptions and haredi unwillingness to earn a livelihood. They should demand that haredim at least be obliged to participate in some form of national service.

Alas, due to the extraordinary leverage that haredi parties are currently able to exert in terms of the present government, far from being resolved these issues have become more acute. The haredi parties have been able to strengthen their grip on religious courts and Shas has been able to legitimize the haredi system in which Rambam, were he alive, would be ineligible to teach because of his willingness to embrace worldly knowledge.

The head of Israeli Emunah, Liora Minka, who was a member of the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset list, recognized the gravity of these changes better than the secular parties. She urged the Habayit Hayehudi Knesset members to threaten not to join the government if the haredi educational system limited exclusively to religious studies became institutionalized. This extension of the haredi educational system in its current form has the capacity of further breaking down the social fabric of the State by increasing the number of Yeshiva bachurim unable to contribute productively to the economy and unwilling to serve in the IDF. Religious Zionists are burying their heads in the sand if they do not confront this burgeoning crisis.

To sum up, religious Zionists must return to their core obligations, concentrating primarily on the soul of the nation, in the absence of which commitment to the sanctity of the land becomes meaningless. They must promote the revival of Jewish heritage and strengthen the Jewish values in the state.

Such an approach will require a renewal of alliances with moderate secular and more open-minded haredi groups in order to stem the tide of secularization and strengthen the Jewish heritage at the educational level – in particular in the secular state stream where Jewish values have been increasingly eroded.

These objectives are not reliant on the small Religious Zionist (now Habayit Hayehudi) Knesset contingent who is in fact outnumbered by religious Zionist MKs from other parties.

There are many talented religious Zionists, women as well as men, not involved in the political arena who without fanfare are currently promoting national religious values at various levels throughout society. Bet Morasha is an extraordinary institution whose achievements and ongoing projects are not widely known. We have dynamic young Rabbanim like Harav Benny Lau who is the Chairman of Bet Morasha, Ravi Yusuf Camel and Rav Shlomo Riskin who are role models for religious Zionist spiritual leaders. And there are others in Tzohar and in other institutions. If there is to be an infusion of Jewish values it will not emanate from political parties but from religious Zionist rabbis and laymen who have demonstrated their ability to impact positively on society by persuasion and example rather than by coercion.

Without being labeled as such, probably over a third of Israeli citizens live and support religious Zionist values which encompass a far wider wide spectrum of Israeli society than is traditionally assumed. Religious Zionism should be judged not by the number of Knesset seats its political faction wins, but by the positive influence of the large number of rank and file Israelis on Medinat Yisrael and on a generation of youngsters who represent the future of the Jewish People.

Isi Leibler

Jerusalem. March 2009

Copyrıght 2014 Isi Leibler.
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