The demise of Religious Zionism

"Initial comments from Bennett about his priorities, the amount of money he got for Ariel University and for settlements point to his primary interests being nationalistic and not religious."

By YOSEF BLAU
May 13, 2015 21:59
4 minute read.
kippa

A man wears a kippa. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

The formation of the new Israeli government based on the negotiated agreements between the parties in the coalition demonstrated the demise of Religious Zionism in its traditional formulation.

For over 100 years Religious Zionism was based on the principles that religious Jews should work as Zionists within the broader Zionist framework which was primarily led by non-observant Jews and that halacha (Jewish law) is compatible with a modern democratic state. From the writings of Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog justifying granting full rights to non-Jewish minorities in Israel in accordance with halacha to the covenant on religious-secular relationships of Rabbi Ya’akov Meidan and Professor Ruth Gavison, these principles were self-evident. Institutes were set up to respond to the challenges of modern technology to halachic observance for the state as well as the individual.

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Starting with the religious kibbutz movement and expressed through Emuna and AMIT and the educational institutions for women where Talmud is taught, women have been granted an expanded role in Orthodox Jewish life and leadership. Yeshivot hesder, combining a traditional yeshiva with army service as an ideal reflects the full integration into Israeli society. Leading Religious Zionist thinkers with individual variations stressed the ability of halacha to be fully observed in the new emerging society and its relevance and flexibility in responding to a changing world.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in a famous essay used the argument between Joseph and his brothers, which he interpreted as a debate on whether religious life could only be maintained in a traditional setting, as a paradigm for Mizrachi’s (Religious Zionism) break with the majority of rabbinic leadership in Europe. God acting through history proved both Joseph and Mizrachi right. Older societies may disappear but Judaism will continue to flourish.

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The distinction between the approaches of Mizrachi and Aguda in the early years of the state was that Aguda fought for glatt kosher food for religious soldiers and Mizrachi for kosher food for the entire Israeli army. Finding the appropriate balance between a Jewish and a democratic state and being the bridge between the observant and the secular was the role of Religious Zionism.

Since the Six Day War, Religious Zionism has championed the cause of Jewish sovereignty over the entire land of Israel.

The broader vision for the state however always remained. This began to change as the “national” part of the previous name of the Bayit Yehudi Party, MAFDAL, translated into English as the National Religious Party, gained greater prominence.

In the previous government Bayit Yehudi was a major force in changing the department for religious affairs to broaden the role of Religious Zionist rabbis, assumed to be more open than haredi (ultra-Orthodox) incumbents. More choices became available for conversions and for rabbis officiating at weddings. An ongoing controversy that had prevented appointing new dayanim (religious court judges) was about to be resolved, with the addition of a significant number of Religious Zionist rabbis considered likely to be more sympathetic to women trapped in unhappy marriages by husbands that refused to give them a religious divorce. The vote on the agreement did not happen because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired justice minister Tzipi Livni a few hours before the meeting was to take place.

In the negotiations for the new government Shas was given total control over religious affairs. Bayit Yehudi was in a strong position after Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman joined the opposition and it received three important ministries, but gave up any role in religious matters.

This became most apparent when Bayit Yehudi demanded and was granted the Justice Ministry.

In the past the justice minister chaired the committees that determined the appointments of judges in the secular and religious courts. The conclusion of the negotiations was that the new minister would retain the privilege of chairing the committee appointing judges in the secular court system, but give up that role with regard to the religious courts. As a consequence that earlier agreement about the many new appointments has been voided and Shas has complete control. Both the new minister, a woman, and the religious Likud members of the negotiating team understood or cared enough about the implications of that decision for women who appear before the religious courts for issues of marriage and divorce to prevent the change.

The appointment of Naftali Bennett, the head of Bayit Yehudi, as education minister, a position which has serious ramifications for the place of Judaism in Israeli education, might have indicated that the traditional concerns of Religious Zionism will be maintained.

However, initial comments from Bennett about his priorities, the amount of money he got for Ariel University and for settlements point to his primary interests being nationalistic and not religious.

I hope that my analysis is incorrect, but it appears that traditional Religious Zionism no longer exists.

The author, a rabbi, is the senior mashgiach ruchani (spiritual adviser) at Yeshiva University and president of the Religious Zionists of America.


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