The (not so) secret culture war between Zionist-religious extremist, centrists

Who is Rabbi Zvi Tau and why is he so essential for understanding the growing rifts between extremists and centrists in the Zionist-religious sector?

By NATAN ODENHEIMER
May 25, 2017 10:07
Bnei David Academy

Students from the Bnei David Academy religious military prep school train in Eli. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Until a decade ago, leaders of the hardal – an acronym for haredi dati leumi, or haredi national-religious – community, representing some 15% of the Religious Zionist public, did not take serious steps toward realizing their political vision for the country, but many seem to think that they are stepping up their game.

Yoav Sorek, a former editor at the Makor Rishon daily, points his finger toward Rabbi Zvi Israel Tau, the spiritual shepherd of the hardal sector, who was often quoted making harsh statements against the way the state is run. He described Israeli reality as a “cultural war” and said his public is under “existential threats” by the secular world.

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Sorek is the chief editor of Hashiloah, a new conservative religiously oriented Hebrew journal supported by the Tikvah Fund. Two years ago, he published a carefully crafted article in Makor Rishon titled “Will Tau’s gravitation toward ultra- Orthodoxy fragment the national Zionist Movement?” Today, this question is still unanswered, yet even more relevant.

Recently, Sorek told The Jerusalem Post that, “during the mid-1990s Tau started to read Israeli reality differently. He sees what happens in Israel as a cultural war against Jews who adopted a Christian- like agenda that is even antisemitic in its essence – an antithesis to Judaism.

As opposed to the teachings of his rabbi [Zvi Yehuda Kook], who saw secular Zionists as unaware participants in advancing the religious cause of Jewish redemption, Tau considers the secular world a threat by Jews who are allegedly trying to alienate fellow Jews from the Torah. His narrative about the secular world is a demonic and extremist narrative.

Rabbi Zvi Israel Tau. Credit: Michael Jacobson/Wikimedia Commons



Rabbi Zvi Tau was born 80 years ago in Vienna. His father was a shrewd businessman who took careful notice of which way the wind would blow. As Nazi Germany occupied and annexed Austria, the Tau family fled to the Netherlands, where they were able to survive the Holocaust thanks to the bravery and resourcefulness of both parents. Young Tau enrolled at a public school, where he was a bright student with a passion for the humanities. Word of mouth says that he still considers Beethoven’s music “the closest thing to angels singing” and that philosopher Immanuel Kant is worth reading only in the original German.

To this day he invokes the Greek philosophers in his writing.

However, he also became more interested in something else. At the age of 17, not too long after his mother died – and very much to his father’s dismay – young Tau moved to Israel to study Torah. He began his studies at Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s yeshiva in Rehovot, but soon made his way to Jerusalem’s Merkaz Harav, presided over by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. Quickly but consistently, after long hours at the beit midrash (study hall), with his sharp mind and great respect for authority, Tau became Kook’s devoted student.

Tau gained traction at the yeshiva.

He was both popular and well versed in Kook’s Hagot, his spiritual and conceptual teachings. Many believed that Tau would inherit the yeshiva after Kook’s death. As often happens, there were also some who thought differently. Rabbi Avraham Shapira, who is a member of the Kook family, did not appoint Tau as his partner in running the yeshiva and for 10 years Tau “bore the humiliation,” as journalist Yair Sheleg put it, “of serving under Shapira.”

By 1997, Tau had had enough, and left the institution to build his own. What led to the ground-shaking divorce was a dispute over certifying yeshiva students as state-approved teachers. Tau believed the yeshiva was consenting to disagreeable additions to the curriculum, to meet the demands of the state. This course was also a way for the yeshiva to get more funding from the state.

He and a number of his followers left Merkaz Harav and established Jerusalem’s Har Hamor Yeshiva, today considered to be one of the most rigorous and demanding yeshivot on the Religious Zionist spectrum. It is also considered very authoritative, in that it doesn’t encourage pluralism of ideas and many students, even intensely studious ones, drop out because of how demanding it is.

Har Hamor was just the beginning.

Over the past 20 years, Tau has built what some call a small “empire.” Other than Har Hamor, there are few other institutions where Tau’s leadership is taken very seriously, such as Yeshivat Midbara K’Eden in Mitzpe Ramon or the pre-military academy Bnei David at the Eli settlement, nicknamed “the military wing of Har Hamor.”

It is thus nicknamed because it is not as rigorous as other yeshivot and is directed toward making the young men into good soldiers and, indeed, it is regarded as very successful in this regard.

These institutions are not officially part of his so-called “empire,” but are perceived as carrying his ideological line.

A female air force pilot at the Hatzor base in 2006. Credit: Reuters

TAU RARELY directly intervenes in politics, but indirectly is a different story.

He makes sure that his opinion is heard on specific politicians and topics. According to sources who prefer to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issues, Tau holds weekly meetings with his closest followers where he lays out his agenda.

In a lesson he taught in 2013, he harshly criticized the head of the Bayit Yehudi Party and Education Minister Naftali Bennett, saying he “doesn’t have the smell of Torah. You can easily tell that he didn’t pass through the gates of Torah. This is the man who would guard the Torah?” Tau also made a point of clarifying his position on Jerusalem’s annual gay parade, explaining in a pamphlet circulated online and in synagogues, why and how homosexuality is an “abomination.”

During the past three years, a movement arose among yeshiva graduates that, according to many people, acts under his leadership. These graduates have created a number of organizations that not only focus on self-education in their own communities, but also aim to “educate” a greater share of the public.

Among these organizations, LIBA stands out.

LIBA’s official purpose is to “augment the holiness of the state so that the Torah and the mitzvot will lead the path.”

It is run by Rabbi Yaakov Dvir of Yeshivat Midbara K’Eden, which publishes articles on topics such as Reform Jews’ religious rights, military service by religious women, and the status of the state’s rabbinical courts.

LIBA activists have told The Jerusalem Post Magazine that many of those who participate in the organizations and campaigns see themselves as followers of Rabbi Tau. Bar-Ilan University political science professor Asher Cohen told the Post that “these activists are not only working together, but they are all the same people.”

By “same people” he alludes to those who are behind LIBA’s sister organizations, Hotam (Teach First Israel or TFI), launched in 2010, and Tzav Ehad – that monitors violations of Jewish religious rights in the army, and runs a hotline for soldiers’ complains – and the Brothers in Arms campaign – a handsomely funded short-lived campaign that called for limiting female soldiers’ service options in the army. Hotam made headlines this year after it uploaded an animated video allegedly showing the hardships of being a religious woman in the army that was clearly aimed at discouraging women from serving in the military. The simplistic rhetoric, demonization of soldiers and chauvinistic stereotypes in the clip kindled public outrage and the video went viral, with Hotam becoming recognized by the public.

The sudden appearance of these organizations during the past two or three years and their strategic choices to impact the general pubic discourse perhaps have something to do with the change in Tau’s reading of Israeli reality that Sorek discussed two years ago. Sorek also told the Post, “The paramount difference between ultra-Orthodoxy and the Religious Zionist camp is about operation with the secular public… “In this sense, Tau’s positions are ultra- Orthodox. This is not the openness of the Religious Zionist camp… Since he has an uncompromising ideology, he doesn’t converse with people. He doesn’t have people who think like him and debate him. There are people who follow him and articulate what he says to larger audiences, and there are those who appreciate his learned spiritual power and see it as their duty to implement Tau’s visions.”

Asked the same question he raised two years ago, Sorek said that, “The Religious Zionist camp is still driving toward a crisis. Nothing too dramatic has happened yet. The mainstream Religious Zionist leaders haven’t yet spoken out against the hardalim. There is a desire to hold things together, at least from the point of view of the mainstream leaders. On one hand, it looks like we are heading toward an unavoidable, deep division; on the other hand, this very much depends on Rabbi Tau.”

Tau himself doesn’t speak with the press. One of his closest followers, Rabbi M., told the Post that he cannot be interviewed or answer any question, since this is against Tau’s orders and that no one from Tau’s inner circles would talk to the press. He also insists that “it’s impossible to understand anything about Tau’s aims,” since he exists on a “higher sphere of being,” a different reality of sorts, incomprehensible to anyone without “at least 10 years of study.”

Nonetheless, Tau and his followers are trying to affect the everyday lives of Israelis who didn’t choose to study with him. In a recent pamphlet funded by real-estate mogul Yisrael Zaira and distributed in synagogues, Tau articulated his position on various toxic topics and explained the steps needed so that the Jewish people realizes its anticipated redemption.

Female soldiers from the Hara’am artillery battalion in the Golan Heights earlier this year. Credit: Reuters

In this sense, his Jewish political thought is far from ultra-Orthodoxy, which by and large believes that Jews shouldn’t rush the coming of redemption, but only wait for it patiently. In the pamphlet, Tau states that the Zionist secular ideologists and leaders such as Ahad Ha’am and David Ben-Gurion were infidels, that today a small group of lefty fanatics is trying to sabotage the process toward redemption, that the IDF is “in bad hands” and that it is time to respond to trends that are corrupting society. Curiously, despite his purist opposition to Western culture, Tau draws comparisons between Israel and ancient Athens and quotes from Plato’s Republic.

According to the political theology of Religious Zionism, the creation of the State of Israel was the first step toward redemption, even though it was made possible by secular Zionists. Rabbi Kook and his son, Zvi Yehuda, believed that it is crucial to join forces with the secular Zionists in order to ensure the Jewish state’s success. Rabbi Eli Sadan, co-head of the yeshiva at Eli, recently authored a manifesto of sorts titled “A call for direction for Religious Zionists,” in which he acknowledges the ineptness of religious political movements in creating a state in years past and the triumph of secular Zionism.

He concludes that it is time for Religious Zionism to take charge of the country through key positions in the military, state institutions, the judiciary and education.

“We should do today what we didn’t do a hundred years ago,” he writes.

“This is the real solution for the problems of the hour.”

One of the chief “problems” according to Tau’s adherents is homosexuality.

In his manifesto, Tau condemns last year’s gay parade in Jerusalem, which brought together a record number of participants and was overwhelmed by kippa-wearing men and head-covered women.

A running joke during the parade was that it had been turned into a religious party. What perhaps drove so many religious men and women to protest LGBTQ rights in Jerusalem were previous events promoting the parade and gay rights.

Two years ago, a religious extremist stabbed to death 16-year-old Shira Banki during the parade, justifying his deed by his understanding of ultra-Orthodoxy.

A few month before last year’s parade, Sadan’s partner in heading the pre-military academy at Eli, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, was filmed expressing a heavily unfavorable attitude toward gays in a talk later nicknamed by Israeli media as “the perverts speech,” since he defined homosexuality as a perversion.

“For some of the religious participants, myself included,” activist Tehila Friedman told the Post, “joining the parade wasn’t about supporting LGBTQ rights. The event took place a week after an important public figure [Levinstein] held a hateful speech against homosexuals, calling them perverts. I came to the parade to protest against spreading hate in the name of God. “I consider such speech blasphemy.”

Friedman is a local leader and former director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, a National Religious movement that hopes to “forge a sector of Judaism that successfully integrates a halachic lifestyle with active engagement in Israeli society.”

“Hateful rhetoric such as Levinstein’s drives me nuts,” Friedman declares.

“I’m not even that liberal, but this culture of hate is dividing and fragmenting society. It drives us to oblivion. I’m a Jewish woman who is constantly afraid of an approaching disaster. It’s miraculous that we have a state, and that some rabbis are running amok, picking on particular groups like bullies, as they do with women or lefties, and blame them for all that is wrong in the world. This is the kind of zealotry that caused the disaster of the Second Temple.”

Sexuality and gender are two issues that hardal rabbis are provocative about.

In less than a year, Levinstein, who was mostly unknown outside Eli, became a name familiar across the country.

His “perverts speech” – and a video in which he said female soldiers are unattractive and unmarriageable – occupied Israeli news media for weeks.

Time and again in a LIBA pamphlet, rabbis Tau and Sadan described the joint service of men and women as a devastating threat to society. Sadan wrote that it would place soldiers in situations where they wouldn’t be able to control their urges.

Asked why hardal rabbis are obsessed with issues of gender and sexuality, Friedman explained that political theology is able to defeat other ideologies of the past century, except for the vigorous, intellectual feminist movement.

“Feminism is growing strong roots across various publics, and they see it as a threat to religion.

Friedman also pointed out that the hardal leadership is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi.

“In fact,” she said, “we have two Ashkenazi elites – [hardal] rabbis and the secular world – that are obsessed with one another and talk above the heads of the rest of society. Most Israelis don’t care as much about settlements and homosexuality. They have other things to worry about. This attitude blindly sidelines most people.”

Leading Religious Zionist journalist Yair Sheleg agrees that the leadership is distinctly Ashkenazi, but points out that some are Mizrahi and that there are also warming ties between them. Tau, who almost never takes part in political events, made an appearance last year at the Yahad Party’s pre-election conference.

The party was established by former Shas leader Eli Yishai and includes both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi hardal rabbis, such as Meir Mazoz.

Funding for hardal yeshivot and organizations such as LIBA or Hotam comes from various sources. State funds make their way to several yeshivas and organizations through different budgets of the ministries of Religious Affairs and Agriculture. Private donors also contribute to these campaigns, but it is difficult to map the flow of money with some of the newer organizations, since NGOs are obliged to report their incoming funds only after two years. Asked about resources, key activists of LIBA and Brothers in Arms maintained that most donations are of small amounts and made by private individuals.

The paradox is that on one hand these rabbis are battling Israeli conventions while at the same time they live off state salaries. For instance, Rabbi Tzvi Kustiner, a student of Tau’s who heads Yeshivat Midbara K’Eden, also teaches in the official military course for IDF rabbis. A Ynet article from this January reported that he preaches against military service by women, that it is okay to shoot uninvolved citizens in a time of war (which is against open-fire regulations), and that non- Jews should be kicked out of the army.

It’s difficult to determine the magnitude and impact of these changes.

Some see this newly forged alliance as an unprecedented threat to the pluralism of Religious Zionist society. Hanan Mendel, the director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah, told the Post that never before had ultra-Orthodox and hardal rabbis seen things eye-to-eye like this.

Sorek, however, maintains that, “while the hardal is a loud voice heard among Religious Zionists, and that many educational institutes and teachers share their ideology, it’s important not to exaggerate. It still doesn’t mean more people are turning to them.”


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