Naftali Bennett: Jack of all trades, master of... some?

The clash between government and religion is an old story in our nation’s cauldron, simmering with division.

May 27, 2013 23:09
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett at Knesset swear in, Feb 5, 2013.

Lapid and Bennett at Knesset swear in 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

It should come as no surprise that with the unveiling of a series of religious reforms, Religious Services Minister and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett is facing criticism from both poles of the socio-political spectrum.

The clash between government and religion is an old story in our nation’s cauldron, simmering with division.

Let’s rewind to the Persian era. The last verse in the Book of Esther is as tragic as it is paradigmatic: “Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren.”

Mordechai, the 5th-century Jewish dissident and celebrated hero of the Purim story, risks his life on countless occasions to sanctify the name of God, safeguard his people and pursue justice in King Ahasuerus’ kingdom. And how is the activist who led a career of conviction wrapped up in the book’s conclusion? As someone who was accepted by “most” of his brethren.

According to medieval Torah giant Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) part of the Sanhedrin disassociated from him when he “became close to the government and neglected his studies.” Prophet and public protester, who acts alone in the midst of a protracted struggle for Jewish life, he is finally ostracized by the sages. His crime? Lessening his study time, through taking political initiative, demanding human responsibility; opposing the precedent of passivity that would have led to Jewish history’s first genocide. In trying to synthesize politics and faith, Mordechai suffers from an acute case of nisht ahin nisht aher (not there and not here).

2,500 years of Jewish history later, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook faced a similar hurdle. In Igrot Hareiyah he laments: “It is very difficult for me to reach a compromise with my learned contemporaries, may God preserve them... I am attacked right and left... but whom shall I speak with, and who will agree with me; who is willing to forsake his honor for the honor of God and His Torah, and the sanctity of His beloved land?” Because of his unique worldview, Rabbi Kook was criticized by the ultra-Orthodox for his alliances with the Zionists – “the heretics.” Their leader, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, banned his magnum opus, Orot.

Posters were hung in Jerusalem insulting him and he was even physically attacked. Vilified by the ultra- Orthodox, he was no more popular among the secular, who resented his desire to incorporate Jewish law into the laws of the land. A Torah scholar who also valued the secular establishment, he was unable to bridge the rifts between both worlds.

The act of balancing worldliness and the supernal hasn’t always come easy for Jewish leaders – not theologically and not practically. Theologically, there is concern that human intervention undermines God’s omnipotence.

Practically, a Jacob-like leader whose feet are in the ground with his mind in heaven treads on thin ice, at risk of being too lofty for the laymen and too this-worldly for the spiritualists.

Confronting the same tension is Naftali Bennett, for his recently proposed set of religious reforms. Their stated goals – to improve the professionalism of religious services and make them more accessible to the public – have threatened the Right and aren’t fooling the Left. Bennett describes the reforms as an “opportunity to sanctify God’s name,” but the ultra-Orthodox view deviation from the norm as sacrilege, and those on the Left would rather not see God’s name at all when it comes to what they view as normatively civil matters, such as marriage and divorce.

Between Meretz MK Michal Roisin’s quip that Bennett’s reforms are merely “service with a smile” and UTJ’s MK Meir Porush’s warning of a “break from the tradition,” the Bayit Yehudi chairman’s attempt to transcend party lines is perhaps proving to be more difficult than imagined during his campaign.

One wonders if Bennett, who was infamously described as leading a “house of goyim” by Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and whose proposed reforms are dismissed by Israel Reform leader Rabbi Gilad Kariv as nothing but a “cosmetic facelift,” will succeed in leading the revolution he hoped for, that is, “creating a bridge between everyone in Israeli society.”

When “everyone” represents both a secular sector begging to be freed of the shackles of religion along with an ultra-Orthodox population reverting farther and farther into its cave, such bridge-building seems impossible. Legislative efforts to make religion more accessible, such as the creation of Tzohar, a group of rabbis “dedicated to revitilazing the role of the rabbinate by engaging in a meaningful dialogue with the secular world” are admirable, but haven’t been substantial enough to assuage the tension. Streamlining the Jewish marriage process doesn’t diminish its Jewishness, something many young Israelis are ready to do without. On the haredi end, Tzohar has been derogated as compromising Jewish law to meet popular demands.

Along comes Bennett, our jack-of-all-trades; former software entrepreneur, company commander in elite IDF units, now turned politician. As Economy and Trade Minister, (Bennett holds three portfolios) he hasn’t shied away from stressing the need to incorporate all sectors of society into the workforce, no matter the size of their hat.

But he has also repeatedly voiced support of Torah establishments and vowed to continue their funding.

Yet similar to Mordechai, Bennett is too worldly for today’s ultra-Orthodox sages. His involvement in Israeli society is inconsistent with the prevailing politics of isolation that governs their community. And, like Rabbi Kook, his desire for an Israel somewhat still interwoven with Jewish law is suffocating to the secular, who feel backed into an archaic corner.

If the skullcap that is iconoclastic for one sector seems stiflingly irrelevant to another, can Bennett succeed in bridging Israeli society’s religious gaps? Can the Left accept the reforms as anything more than a reinforcement of the coercive status quo, foisted on a population seeking civil marriage? Will the right cease calling him, as haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman put it, one who betrays “God and his Torah”? Although Bennett has repeatedly stated that his aim is to focus on the 70 percent that the country agrees on, from the looks of it his arm is already being twisted by the other 30% into the ideological war he had firmly resolved to avoid.

Will he succeed in shifting the focus to reflect Israeli society’s common ground? Maybe, and maybe not. If Bennett can find a way to lower the flames of internal religious conflicts through compromises that both sides respect maybe the 30% burning issues can be swiftly swept under the rug, even if temporarily. He won’t win the war, but he may win the battle. Both the religious and secular who are raging over his rhetoric must concede to make room for some unity for there to be a cosmic breakthrough – time, cosmetic facelifts, and smiles, will tell.

The author is a freelance writer living in Israel.

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