Yoel Finkelman 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s certainly not the first time that religious-zionist rabbis have raised
eyebrows. But their latest letter, supporting convicted rapist and former
president Moshe Katsav, took just about everybody by surprise.
– signed by Rabbis Shlomo Aviner, Tzvi Tau and others – called the verdict into
question, encouraged Katsav to be strong and declared that his innocence would
eventually come to light. In a follow-up statement, Aviner explained that the
press had influenced the court and its gentile judge, who convicted Katsav
without adequate evidence. Fortunately, other prominent rabbis, such as Aharon
Lichtenstein and Ya’acov Ariel, quickly responded, rejecting the judgement of
the original letter and identifying it as a potential desecration of God’s name
I am as dismayed as the next person by the content of
the letter, which certainly does not reflect well on these rabbis’ moral vision
or political judgment. Still, together with much of the shocked public, I found
myself wondering what the rabbis were thinking. What would prompt otherwise
thoughtful people to issue such a problematic statement, when they must have
known it would be made public and condemned? From where came the confidence that
they know more than the court, given that the trial was held behind closed
doors? Still, I think we can look for cultural and ideological reasons why these
rabbis might support Katsav, condemn the court that convicted him and challenge
the honesty of the victims.
THE RABBIS’ letter reflects three deep-seated
attitudes within a significant portion of the more “right-wing” rabbinic elite.
First, these religious Zionist rabbis, like their haredi counterparts, do not
trust the judicial system or the secular press.
Not even a little bit.
The court’s unequivocal conviction of Katsav and its condemnation of his
behavior in the strongest terms means little to these rabbis, since they
perceive the court system as a hotbed of the post-Zionist secular
Moreover, Katsav was roundly censured by the press even before the
court’s verdict. For many religious Zionist rabbis, the judicial system and the
secular press have an agenda to turn this into “a state of all its citizens”
rather than “a Jewish state.”
For the press and judges, particularly the
Christian- Arab judge who presided over the Katsav case, that agenda overcame
truth, especially when dealing with outwardly observant people like
Indeed, a few years back, Aviner himself was reviled in reports
that claimed he had behaved inappropriately with married women he had been
counseling. Those charges never led to any legal action. Perhaps Aviner
identifies strongly with observant men who claim that the press has invented
sexual harassment claims against them.
Second, the institution of the
presidency resonates with important ideals of nationalist religious
The president symbolizes the miracle of renewed Jewish
sovereignty and independence, but that office does not resolve all the dilemmas
religious Jews face when dealing with a secular state, since the president
possesses no political power. Hence he cannot be blamed for government policies
that violate Jewish law.
Moreover, an observant president like Katsav,
who instituted daily prayers in the president’s official residence, anticipates
the messianic potential embedded in the country and its public institutions,
which may all one day adopt Orthodox observance, helping to fulfill the destiny
of the Jewish people as a holy nation. The fall of the outwardly observant
Katsav and the consequent humiliation of the presidency as an institution
strikes at the heart of religious Zionist images of mamlahtiut (patriotic
Third, the rabbis who signed the pro-Katsav letter put great
stock in tzniut, female modesty, and encourage young women to cover themselves,
to prefer the private domestic sphere and to adopt a meek stance when compared
to men. These same rabbis have been quite insistent in their own criticism of
Orthodox feminist women who take the initiative in the public square to demand
changes in Jewish law, religious custom or communal policy.
On the one
hand, adulterous relations, indeed rape, in the office of the president seem
like the antithesis of the value of tzniut, something these rabbis would be sure
to condemn. On the other hand, the women who complained against Katsav took on a
role that pushes against the sensibilities linked with tzniut. They are
self-assured women who are not afraid to challenge the male power
It seems likely that the rabbis who signed the letter are
profoundly concerned about the inappropriateness of assertive women who fight
back against the male establishment.
As I’m a deeply committed religious
Zionist, the rabbis’ letter left me angry, upset and embarrassed. By trying to
understand their motives, I certainly do not mean to justify their statements.
But perhaps understanding their motives will put us – the vast majority of Jews
who do not want Torah tainted by such statements – in a better position to state
the obvious: Judaism condemns rape and sexual harassment, no matter who commits
them; we should be protecting the victims rather than reassuring the
perpetrator; and spokespeople for Judaism should avoid saying hurtful and
dangerous things, particularly when they have no evidence.The writer is
a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at
Bar-Ilan University. He also teaches Talmud and Jewish thought in Jerusalem.