The polarization within the Jewish religious arena is sharply reflected both by the dramatic weakening of modern Orthodox streams and in the growing radicalization of the haredi world and empowerment of its most extreme elements.
I recollect nostalgically the Orthodox rabbis with whom I was acquainted in the Diaspora. With the exception of the Hungarian ultra-Orthodox who deliberately isolated themselves from the broader community and the fanatically anti-Zionist Satmar Hassidim, they were all committed to the communal welfare.
Ultra-Orthodox laymen included doctors, lawyers and businesspeople who ensured that besides a yeshiva education, their children also learned trades or studied in university. In a word, most of them participated in the broader community.
In Israel during the early decades of the state, aside from small pockets of extremists, the Aguda and other ultra-Orthodox groups retained a respectful attitude to the state and its instrumentalities.
However, with the growth of haredi representation in the Knesset enabling them to tilt the balance of power, they succeeded in leveraging vast sums from successive governments for their education and housing.
Simultaneously, yeshiva rabbis, devoid of secular education and many with minimal interaction with society, strove to enroll as many yeshiva students as possible, irrespective of their abilities. Furthermore, they urged their followers to devote their lives toward full-time learning without earning a livelihood, and to rely on state welfare.
This approach has no precedent in Jewish life. Many of the rabbis debating in the Mishnah are actually identified by their profession, and Maimonides emphatically stated that “Whoever thinks he can study Torah and not work, and relies on charity, profanes God’s name.”
The radicalization was spearheaded by an aggressive haredi hijacking of the Chief Rabbinate – a state institution which they had formerly treated with contempt.
In turn, this led to a determined drive to impose on the entire nation excessively stringent interpretations of Jewish law in all spheres – marriage, divorce, gender separation, conversion and kashrut.
In order to alleviate acute economic hardship, the great sages of the past creatively interpreted halacha on issues like prohibition against interest and the observance of Shmita (the injunction to allow the land in Israel to lie fallow every seventh year). In contrast, today’s haredi rabbis enforce the most stringent interpretations without concern for the welfare of the nation as a whole.
The combination of extremism, isolationism and political power climaxed with the histrionic efforts by haredim to resist the government decision to partially remove the exemption of military or national service to yeshiva students.
With overwhelming public support, the government voted to revoke the exemptions which, due to the massive demographic expansion of the haredi sector, had mushroomed from the original 400 granted by prime minister David Ben-Gurion to over 8,500 annually.
Desperate to retain control of their followers and maintain the cordon sanitaire they had created between their world and society at large, haredi rabbis launched massive protests.
No halachic prohibition exists against serving in the army of Israel. Our bible is full of military campaigns and of personalities like Joshua and King David who personally led, fought and saved the Jewish people in battle. The sages tell us we are obliged to fight to defend ourselves (Milchemet Mitzvah).
Israelis, especially religious Zionists who take great pride in their army service, are outraged by the haredi claim that they are contributing to the defense of Israel by learning Torah and praying. The former, discredited, Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yonah Metzger even made the bizarre statement that “when yeshiva attendance is low, as on holiday evenings or prior to the Shabbat, more IDF soldiers are killed.”
The government made every effort to achieve this change on a consensual level. The law shall only be implemented gradually over three years and will only apply at the age of 24. The principal vehicle to achieve this was financial, by reducing and even eliminating the state subsidies to yeshivot refusing to cooperate.
Unfortunately, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, in a populist stunt, succeeded in tabling a government proposal whereby criminal sanctions would be applied to those refusing to register. This was utterly impractical as under such circumstances, the prison system would collapse or be transformed into de-facto yeshivot.
However, the extremists cynically grabbed this opportunity to radicalize, unite and goad the entire haredi community into one of its ugliest confrontations with the state.
The language directed against the government was disgusting and profane, with some of the so called “gedolei hador,” or religious leaders of the generation, accusing the government of “imprisoning Jews for learning Torah” and comparing political leaders to Amalek and Nazis.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, widely regarded as the moderate “gadol hador” of the Lithuanian haredim, told government ministers that they should “go to hell and suffer and be totally annihilated... May their names and memories be blotted out.”
Contrast this vulgar language to the respectful disagreements recorded in the Mishnah to gauge the depths to which our “gedolim” have descended.
Equally disturbing was the unification of the entire haredi world in this vicious and contemptible crusade.
Clearly the moderates had been silenced and the radicals, many of whom are aggressively anti-Zionist and even refuse to recite prayers for the state or the IDF, are now in control. The chief rabbis, who are state employees, behaved as puppets by participating in the haredi demonstration – claiming that they were indulging in “prayers.” These same chief rabbis had earlier issued an injunction that women should not serve in the IDF, which outraged religious Zionists.
The campaign was extended to the Diaspora. In New York a major demonstration against the Israeli government took place in which Agudat Israel of America, usually loath to engage in anti-Israeli activities, fully participated. The Rabbinical Council of America, once a proud bastion of modern orthodoxy, responded with deafening silence.
In Melbourne, Australia, where a similar rally took place, an outraged response erupted from the rank-and- file Jewish community, and the dominant Chabad rabbinate was obliged to write a humiliating letter claiming that it had misunderstood the nature of the rally and apologized. This demonstrates that laymen can stand up against extremist rabbis, and when they do, they usually succeed.
The roots of the problem are that the influential radical rabbis are becoming ever more extreme and shrill in their isolation from society and attacks on the leadership.
There is a bitter truth in the remark that were Maimonides alive today he would be denied a teaching post in a haredi yeshiva because of his worldly knowledge and scientific outlook.
It is sad that a Diaspora haredi doctor, lawyer or businessman settling in Israel, by sending his children to a haredi yeshiva denies them the same education and profession from which he benefited. They are destined to join the horde of uneducated black-hats pursuing Talmudic studies, denied worldly knowledge and isolated from those who do not share their outlook.
The haredi rabbis are making a terrible mistake. Instead of cooperating with the government which is willing to be flexible and gradual in imposing changes, they are polarizing the situation and leading their followers into an abyss of ignorance and poverty. Their behavior is reminiscent of those rabbis in Europe who urged their followers not to leave on the eve of the Holocaust.
The power of the radical rabbis will only be reversed if we exercise people power. We must insist that a moderate Zionist rabbinical leadership take control of fundamental issues affecting all Jewish citizens. If the haredi-controlled chief rabbinate remains an obstacle, the modern Orthodox and national religious camp should set up its own independent rabbinate.
At the same time we must condemn “haredi bashing.”
So long as haredim do not impose their standards upon the whole nation and fulfill their civic responsibilities, they must be treated with respect and enabled to live their lifestyles which include many positive components which we could do well to emulate.
There are no easy solutions. But if the radicalization continues and we do not succeed in reinstating moderation and core Zionist principles, the haredi issue could morph into violent societal confrontation and cause immense damage, just at a time as Israelis are seeking out their Jewish roots and becoming increasingly more traditional.
The writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org