The dangerous silence of modern Orthodoxy

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It is generally conceded that as a group, religious Zionists today represent the most motivated, dedicated and patriotic segment of Israeli society. Why, then, do so many Israelis still regard religious Jews generally with disdain, even disgust?

Perhaps because haredim are exempt from the draft, and the minority who display contempt toward the state are highlighted by the media. Radical nationalist outbursts by extremist rabbis certainly do not help, nor does the perception that religious political parties are preoccupied with extorting public funds for their own institutions.

Our educational system, in addition, fails to provide youngsters with appreciation or respect for the Jewish heritage. At the same time, Orthodox Jews are perceived as trying to coerce nonobservant Israelis into adopting their lifestyles. Finally, to top it off, Shinui and other politicians make it their business to conduct campaigns against religious Jews.

All these factors undoubtedly intensify polarization between the Orthodox and non-observant sectors of society. But the greatest obstacle to addressing the problem is that haredim have become virtually the sole spokesmen for religious Jews. A modern Orthodox viewpoint is rarely heard.

Regrettably, the heads of yeshivot, whose influence has grown enormously over recent years, are perceived – aside from hard-line forays into politics – as being more concerned with the minutiae of Halacha than with focusing constructively on central, life-related issues. Many rabbis are also constantly looking over their shoulders, fearful of being accused of being too lenient in their application of Jewish law. The majority have either absorbed or consider it incumbent upon them to adopt a haredi approach and expressly disown modernity.

It is somewhat alarming that today few, if any, of the younger Israeli rabbis receive a tertiary education. One is unlikely to find a single university graduate at gatherings of Israeli rabbis. Even rabbis with high school diplomas are becoming a rare species.

There is no Israeli counterpart to New York’s Yeshiva University producing rabbis whose religious outlook is synthesized with a secular education. Bar-Ilan University does supplement a traditional yeshiva education, producing graduates whose religious commitment blends with modernity. But, unlike its American counterpart, it does not include a division to train candidates for the rabbinate.

There was a time when religious Zionism was largely identified with modern Orthodoxy. Its leaders sought to grapple with the challenge of fusing Halacha developed over 2,000 years in exile with the requirements of a modern, Jewish, democratic state. They also sought to accommodate nonobservant Israelis without conflicting with Halacha and received accolades for being at the forefront of moderation and tolerance.

THE SITUATION has changed dramatically. In addition to becoming radicalized on the national level, an increasing number of religious Zionists have also personally begun adopting haredi lifestyles and, with notable exceptions, many are leading the flight from modernity. Teachers in the national religious school system have mirrored these changes and thus influenced youngsters from modern Orthodox homes.

Not surprisingly, combined with the one-dimensional concentration on settlements by many religious Zionists, this trend has accelerated the movement toward religious isolationism and extremism. It has thus discouraged rabbis from displaying flexibility in matters related to religion and state. This paralysis paved the way for the Supreme Court to step into the breach and intervene, especially in areas relating to personal status such as marriage and conversion.

Most religious leaders still fail to appreciate the necessity of finding a solution for Israeli citizens who are ineligible to qualify for halachic marriage and are obliged to go through the demeaning charade of traveling overseas to wed. If Orthodox leaders continue vetoing possible solutions enabling Israelis to consummate a union in their own country, the state will eventually introduce unrestricted civil marriage, which would create enormous problems.

The situation regarding conversion is even more scandalous. After painful and protracted negotiations the Neeman Commission was on the eve of launching a unique solution to overcome the problems of Reform and Conservative conversions within the framework of Halacha. At the last moment, it was undermined by haredi rabbis.

The uniqueness of Shabbat as a rest day has also been eroded because of a stubborn refusal by religious leaders to recognize the right of nonobservant Jews to indulge in leisure activities of their choosing on Shabbat. Despite the recent Supreme Court ruling rejecting approval for a laissez-faire situation in relation to the workforce on Shabbat, we are moving speedily toward a situation in which trade and commerce on Shabbat will become an accepted practice. That would ring the death knell for a unique Jewish institution that was hitherto accepted as a national as well as a spiritual day of rest. It would also mean that many religious Israelis would be confronted with similar problems relating to Shabbat observance as faced by their Diaspora counterparts.

There are, of course, dedicated rabbis in organizations such as Eretz Chemda, Tzomet, and Tzohar analyzing halachic problems and seeking to build bridges and promote outreach. There are former Diaspora leaders like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who singlehandedly built up impressive educational institutions promoting Torah in conjunction with modernity. There are also laymen and rabbis in institutions like Beit Morasha and the Israel Democracy Institute who are striving to improve relations between secular and religious Israelis, as exemplified in the Gavison-Medan Covenant. And a new breed of well-educated Orthodox women making an impact on women’s issues could also make a major contribution in this field.

The reality is, however, that religious Jews who embrace modernity are being marginalized in the Orthodox community. Paradoxically, ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora, especially in Europe, whose standards of piety are no less rigorous than their Israeli counterparts, frequently encourage their yeshiva-educated children to study in universities and become professionals in order to earn a better livelihood.

Today in Israel, such people would find it impossible to straddle both worlds.

If the trend is not stemmed, Orthodox Judaism will be substantially weakened by being deprived of intellectuals who in the past made major contributions to the welfare of the Jewish people. If a worldly genius like Maimonides appeared today, his bona fides would be challenged in the narrow currents of the haredi world.

It is also important to bear in mind that while small in number, modern Orthodox Jews today still occupy key roles maintaining bridges with nonobservant Jews. If Orthodox Judaism purges from its ranks those who espouse modernity, religious Jews will become further estranged from the bulk of the Jewish people and transformed into a cult.

There is a substantial body of well-educated Israelis who are profoundly concerned with these problems. Instead of bemoaning the fact that they are becoming an extinct species, they should band together and create a public council committed to promoting modern Orthodoxy and strengthening the Jewish character of the state.

Their most pressing priority should be to create a strong and articulate rabbinate capable of expressing a modern Orthodox halachic approach to what is now largely monopolized by haredim.

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