The Chief Rabbinate, backed by its ultra-Orthodox political factions, has imposed additional extreme and even bizarre rulings that impact on the nation.
In previous generations we were blessed with chief rabbis who were worldly, spiritual giants who sought to harmonize Halachah with the modern requirements of a Jewish state.
The current Chief Rabbinate is dominated by obscurantist and extreme elements that engage in vulgar, boorish and vile curses against the non-Orthodox, has no standing as an institution in Halachah and is even derided by the haredim whose political factions, holding the balance of power in the Knesset, have hijacked the institution.
It was haredi extortion that caused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to revoke the compromise – initially approved by the haredi representatives – whereby non-Orthodox Jews were enabled to worship according to their own traditions at a separate location at the Western Wall. This created enormous tensions with American Jewry, dominated by the Conservative and Reform movements, which felt betrayed.
That was augmented by efforts – currently suspended – to prevent unaffiliated Israeli Orthodox rabbis from officiating at weddings.
It was also revealed that thousands of converts and their entire families had been placed on a rabbinical blacklist and informed that their conversions were invalid. Some had already married under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate but were subsequently re-examined and found to lack adequate documentation. Most former Soviet Jews are unable to provide any form of documentation whatsoever. To “un-Jew” individuals is utterly unprecedented. The Chief Rabbinate also has a blacklist of Diaspora Orthodox rabbis whose conversions or letters certifying the Jewishness of a person are deemed unacceptable.
The principal concern of the haredi rabbis is to ensure that their students devote their entire lives to learning Torah (even if many do not actually devote their time to genuine Torah study), rely on social welfare to subsist and above all, are denied secular education and contact with Israeli society. This is unprecedented in Jewish history.
This approach represents the principal cause for the grinding poverty in the ultra-Orthodox ranks. Most haredi wives work – around the same percentage as women in the general population – and while some men work illegally, less than fifty percent of haredi men earn a livelihood in a recognized workplace.
The situation has dramatically escalated because of the demographic impact of the high birth rates of haredim, whose annual growth rate is 4%, compared to 1% in the non-haredi population. If current trends are sustained, their growth as a percentage of Israel’s total population is expected to be 14% in 2024 and 27% in 2050, when haredim will account for 35% of the total Jewish population. If the current situation does not change, this growth rate and the increasing drain on the economy will lead to an implosion as the state will not be able to sustain an ever-increasing proportion of its citizens reliant on social welfare.
The issue of legislation regarding the drafting of the ultra-Orthodox made new headlines following the recent Supreme Court ruling that there are no grounds for exemption in sharing the national burden. The court provided the government a one-year grace period to rectify the situation.
Conscription of haredim is undoubtedly one of the most emotional and divisive issues that has ever faced the nation.
It originated with founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion acceding to pleas from Agudat Yisrael leaders to give a dispensation from army service to approximately 400 yeshiva students – not for religious reasons, but to compensate for their peers who perished in the Shoah.
To their everlasting shame, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in later generations exploited this to obtain blanket exemption for all haredi yeshiva students. Because the haredi political parties held the balance of power in the Knesset, except for a brief interregnum when they were excluded from the government and Yair Lapid introduced legislation to conscript them, haredi yeshiva students were enabled to evade conscription and remained isolated from mainstream Israeli society.
Their justification was that their contribution to the defense of the nation was based on prayer and study of the Torah. These arguments outraged the bulk of the nation, whose children are obliged to serve their nation for a period of two to three years. It is particularly resented by religious Zionists who regard their IDF service as a mitzvah – a religious obligation.
If a poll were held, it would no doubt show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis applaud the High Court’s judgment. Retiring Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, himself an observant Jew who defends the haredi lifestyle, summed up the issue: “The blood of one man is no redder than the blood of another.”
The onus rests on the Knesset. The coalition and the opposition could finally break the exasperating stranglehold of the extremist rabbinate and reinstate a moderate rabbinical leadership that will pursue national objectives. This should be encouraged by the recent polls suggesting that, since the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and with the unpopularity of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, traditional Shas voters are abandoning the party. Shas may well struggle to maintain a presence in the next Knesset.
One of the greatest disappointments in this area has been the attitude of Habayit Hayehudi, whose principal mandate should be to encourage a harmonious fusion of religion and state. It has concentrated on expanding land settlement and forsaken its mission to enable religious Zionism to reclaim a central role in the state. Its leader, Naftali Bennett, has sat on the fence and acquiesced as the extremists in his party became dominant. As education minister, he declined to impose a minimum secular curriculum in the haredi schools while deferring to Tkuma, the extreme right-wing faction of his party, which tends to identify with haredim on religious issues.
Legislating a solution to the haredi conscription issue is enormously challenging. Setting aside the street disorder and insurrection that could be overcome with rigorous law enforcement, the real issue is whether the IDF could cope with a huge influx of insulated haredim who have no form of contact outside their own world.
Conscription cannot be imposed overnight and must be a gradual, evolving process. Every effort must be made to recognize their haredi cultural distinctiveness and ensure that their genuine religious requirements are met. A limited number of haredim could be granted exemptions, in addition to those who are totally unsuited for conscription. The IDF would face the challenge of drafting those who are suitable and training them for roles in which they can serve.
There is also the question of how to enforce the law. We certainly would not seek to fill our jails with haredim. To his credit, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed a rational solution. Those refusing to be conscripted should be classified as breaking the law and denied social welfare and those yeshivot instructing their students to defy the law should be denied all state subsidies. If both coalition and opposition parties supported this approach, the resistance from the haredi extremist rabbis would be quashed and one of Israel’s most divisive internal schisms could ultimately be healed.
This could lead to the breaking of the stranglehold of the extremist Chief Rabbinate and lead to highly overdue reforms supervised by moderate Zionist rabbis. This would delight the majority of Israelis who will be free to choose their spiritual leaders according to their preference and who will implement a more compassionate halachic approach to issues such as conversion, marriage, divorce, and gender.
It would also lead to the integration of haredim into the mainstream, as is the case in the Diaspora, where many of their kinsmen make valuable contributions to their respective Jewish communities. It could lead to haredim embracing worldliness and adhering to Maimonides’ golden rule of moderation. Alas, today, Maimonides, a physician and philosopher, would be ineligible to teach in most haredi institutions.
Haredim have a unique lifestyle that should be respected, as long as they do not seek to impose their approach on others. They are a welcome contrast to the hedonistic elements dominating many segments of the secular world. Their piety, devotion and support for the needy is a template to emulate.
There are important sectors in the moderate Zionist religious community resisting the Chief Rabbinate. These include organizations such as Tzohar, Beit Morasha, Eretz Hemdah and ITIM. But these groups are fighting an uphill battle because of the indifference of the secular politicians who should be supporting them.
Regrettably, we should not be too optimistic because a genuine breakthrough is unlikely. Netanyahu fears alienating the haredim who could again hold the balance of power and, if necessary, would not hesitate to punish him and make a deal with other parties. The most likely scenario is that if the vitriol and threats from the haredim continue, this will impel Netanyahu to seek legislation overriding the High Court.
Ultimately, however, objective economic pressures will oblige more and more young haredi men to disregard their rabbis, join the workforce and bring about changes.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom