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.
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.