Once again I feel impelled to express anger, frustration and pain concerning the
primitive behavior displayed by our religious zealots and their frenetic efforts
to reject modernism. But more worrisome are their efforts to impose their
stringent standards of observance on all Israelis, which have created so much
fear and loathing of religion among the people that it could culminate with a
fracturing of Israeli society and distortion of Jewish identity.
have always been individual rabbis and groups who interpreted Halacha – Jewish
law – with extreme rigor. Their right to practice their individual religious
lifestyle as they saw fit was always respected.
dysfunctional political system has enabled zealots to hijack the state religious
institutions which had formerly been administered by moderate religious
Zionists. They transformed the chief rabbinate, which they previously held in
utter contempt, into puppets exploited to impose haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
standards on the entire nation.
Their gross insensitivity, lack of
compassion and the excessive stringency employed in relation to the highly
complex issues associated with marriage and conversion are having catastrophic
national repercussions and encouraging increasing numbers of Israelis to bypass
the rabbinate by marrying in civil ceremonies in Cyprus and elsewhere. For
example, they demand documentary proof testifying to Jewish ancestry dating back
three generations – an impossibility for many offspring of Holocaust survivors
and Jews from the former Soviet Union. They even resorted to the unprecedented
halachic technique of retroactively nullifying conversions.
rabbinate even sought to deny Tzohar, the association of moderate
national religious rabbis, from conducting marriages.
have failed and Tzohar have now reasserted their influence in regard to
authorizing marriage. In addition, the haredi establishment refuses to
accept halachic innovations to accommodate the requirements of a Jewish
It rejects the halachic initiative of heter mechirah
license), sanctioned by the renowned former chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook at
the beginning of the century in order to allow farmers to continue working their
land during the shmita
(sabbatical year) despite the biblical requirement to let
the land remain fallow.
THE RABBIS who nurtured us during our youth in a
religious Zionist environment were no less pious than their counterparts today,
yet they were not obsessed with gender separation and “modesty.” They never
imposed gender-separated youth groups or insisted it was sinful to listen to
The prohibitions in this area are constantly expanding. In
addition to barring mixed choirs, in Jerusalem this even led to efforts to ban
advertising billboards featuring a woman’s face or body. In their perverted
version of “modesty,” some extremists even seek to pressure religious women to
adopt what can only be described as a Taliban dress code.
Not to mention
the brouhaha over mixed seating in buses, despite the fact that even Rabbi Moshe
Feinstein, one of the greatest ultra-Orthodox halachic authorities of the 20th
century, had not only ruled that this posed no problem, but was highly critical
of an individual becoming sexually aroused by merely sitting next to a woman.
This week, even Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger felt obliged to distance
himself from this campaign.
Some of these trends have infiltrated the
national-religious community, previously renowned for its moderation, serving as
a bridge spanning all sectors of society and promoting Judaism to non-observant
Israelis by example rather than by coercion.
This worrying trend
originated with the recruitment of haredim as teachers in the religious Zionist
educational system. This led to the emergence of a new generation of educators,
including rabbis, who retained their national ideals but, having been educated
exclusively in yeshivot and lacking secular tertiary education, adopted the
haredi rejection of worldly knowledge.
This absence of a broader
education combined with an almost messianic obsession with the sanctity of the
land rather than wider religious social values created a brand of religious
nationalism which became alienated from the people.
It led to some rabbis
insinuating that conflicts between democracy and Halacha are inevitable and even
encouraging religious soldiers to reject orders deemed to be inconsistent with
While clumsily mishandled by the IDF, the recent call from
some rabbis for religious soldiers to boycott army ceremonies in which women
sing is unprecedented. This concept of “Kol Isha
” was promulgated at a time when
female singers were associated with promiscuity and was only observed by a small
minority within the Orthodox framework. Surely, the few soldiers wishing
to observe this could have resolved the problem by simply wearing earplugs. The
madness is further exacerbated by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh allegedly
recommending that soldiers choose death before complying with an order to hear
More outrageously, students from a religious pre-military
academy (Eli) were recently forbidden by their rabbi (Elie Sadan) to attend a
lecture in the Knesset because it was being presented by a woman.
chief rabbi Shlomo Goren and other former chief rabbis never objected to such
activity nor absented themselves from events in which women participated. Yet
would anyone dare suggest that former chief rabbis, who would never conceivably
endorse such stringent rulings, were any less pious or learned than the current
incumbents? Were Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog or Chief Rabbi Goren
religiously inferior to Chief Rabbi Metzger?
However, today many rabbis who
privately describe extremist halachic interpretations as abhorrent and harmful
feel intimidated and lack the courage to raise their voices in protest. Others
mistakenly believe that a split in religious ranks would be more damaging than
confronting the zealots. The time has come for us to demand that mainstream
rabbis speak up and publicly promote what Maimonides described as the “shvil
hazahav” – the golden path of moderation.
The highly respected Tzohar
rabbis, if unable to function within the existing rabbinical framework, must
cease appeasing the zealots and muster the courage to break away and set up a
totally independent Beit Din (rabbinical court) to deal with issues of marriage
and conversion in a contemporary halachic manner consistent with the
requirements of the nation.
Although prospects for success are remote,
the national interest demands that the Knesset and political parties, comprised
overwhelmingly of secular and moderate religious representatives, should suspend
their differences in order to introduce changes breaking the nexus which has
enabled haredim to apply excessive leverage to impose their standards on the
Ultra-Orthodox children, like their counterparts in the
Diaspora, must receive an education which will enable them to earn a livelihood
and not be destined to remain permanently dependent on state welfare. Their
schools should be denied funding unless they include core subjects such as
mathematics, science and language in their curricula. Like other
citizens, they too must contribute toward citizenship and serve in the army or
at least undertake some form of national service.
The current religious
establishment is behaving in a scandalous manner and alienating Israelis and
Diaspora Jews from Judaism. As a religious Jew who once admired the chief
rabbinate as the jewel in the crown of religious Zionism, it pains me to state
that like many Israelis, I would celebrate the dissolution of this institution
as currently constituted.
We must strive for a compassionate, Zionist
rabbinate that is equally well versed in worldly matters as with sacred texts and
responsive to the needs of the entire nation. Otherwise, the majority of
Israelis who are today inclined toward maintaining Jewish traditions will become
so alienated that they are likely to ultimately demand a complete separation of
religion and state.
The writer's website can be viewed at
www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He can be reached at [email protected]