Will Bayit Yehudi be the party of the rabbis?

Under former party leader Naftali Bennett, rabbinical influence over Bayit Yehudi waned to a certain extent, and he pushed back against it.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the recently elected chairman of the Bayit Yehudi party (photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI)
Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the recently elected chairman of the Bayit Yehudi party
(photo credit: BAYIT YEHUDI)
On Monday night, several rabbis from the conservative wing of the national-religious party issued a veritable demand to the politicians of Bayit Yehudi and National Union, in which they instructed them to unite the parties for the coming elections to strengthen the political weight of the national-religious community.
The terminology of a “demand” these rabbinical figures used, including rabbis Eli Sadan, Zalman Melamed and Zephaniah Drori, was certainly instructive and could be indicative of a new relationship between these parties, especially Bayit Yehudi, and the rabbis of the sector.
Under former party leader Naftali Bennett, rabbinical influence over Bayit Yehudi waned to a certain extent, and he pushed back against rabbinical instructions, saying famously at the beginning of his leadership that he would “consult” with rabbis but that “we [the politicians] will make the decisions in the political field.”
But now Rabbi Rafi Peretz, associated with the hardline Har Hamor Yeshiva and its rabbinical leadership, has taken up the reins of leadership in Bayit Yehudi, and it is thought that he will be much more attentive to the advice, opinions and instructions of the rabbis he is close with than Bennett ever was.
Peretz is known to be close to Sadan, who pioneered pre-military academies but who has come under fire for harsh positions regarding homosexuals; and Rabbi Yehoshua Zuckerman, a senior figure in Har Hamor.
One insider in the national-religious community described Peretz as “an educator but not a politician” and said he was “weak” and “bossed around” during his tenure as IDF chief rabbi.
Peretz’s closeness to his rabbinic patrons and even his character may indicate that the party’s modus operandi will change significantly in the coming years, with rabbinic influence likely to gain much greater standing than previously.
Shmuel Shattach of the liberal national-religious organization Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah noted that in addition to the hardline influences of the national-religious rabbis who have the ear of Bayit Yehudi, there will be a near absence of more moderate and liberal rabbis.
The more liberal rabbis would never try and force their opinion on Bennett, but would present more moderate alternatives to issues under debate. This moderating rabbinic voice will now be absent from Bayit Yehudi as most, if not all, will likely abandon the party in the coming elections.
Interestingly, MK Bezalel Smotrich, the new chairman of the National Union party, always seen in the past as the more hardline of the two major national-religious parties, may turn out to be slightly less mindful of the demands of the rabbinic leadership of the community.
He is seen as a talented politician who views the political field as a domain where political actors should make decisions about political issues, meaning that he may be less inclined to adhere precisely to the instructions of the rabbis on questions regarding government portfolios, when to join and quit a government and similar matters.
Smotrich is nevertheless close to some leading rabbis, including Melamed, Elyakim Levanon and others, and will likely do as they say on matters of religion and state, even possibly extending to political decisions on such matters.
Prof. Asher Cohen of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on the national-religious community, adds however that the various Knesset candidates on the Bayit Yehudi and National Union lists are for the most part strongly religious and conservative in their approach to religious issues, and so will not frequently have a different opinion than their rabbis on such matters.
It is also important to note that even though Peretz is associated with Har Hamor, he is known for valuing the state and its institutions, as Har Hamor itself traditionally was, and is renowned for having danced with IDF soldiers when they came to Atzmona in the Gush Katif settlements in Gaza to evacuate the settlement and the pre-military academy he established there during the disengagement in 2005.
Sadan, his spiritual mentor, is also known for valuing the institutions of state, and this will be a moderating effect on the party.
And even though the Bayit Yehudi leadership will be more attentive to the wishes of its rabbis, this does not mean to say that the party is heading down the haredi road in which rabbis have the final say on all matters, be it political, religious or otherwise.
Cohen points out that the concept of “Daas Torah,” whereby the spiritual knowledge of a rabbi gives him knowledge and authority in worldly matters he may not be well-versed in and requires that the rabbi’s instructions be adhered to, is not really found in most of the national-religious community.
And it is also unlikely that Bayit Yehudi and National Union will establish a formal Council of Torah Sages as the haredi parties have, which formally give the politicians instructions which they adhere to.
So Bayit Yehudi will become a more religious party than it was under Bennett in the coming years, and rabbinical influence will increase and will have an impact on many policies across the gamut of issues the country faces, should they be part of the governing coalition.
This does not mean to say, however, that Bayit Yehudi, or National Union for that matter, will be formally subservient to the rabbinic leadership as are the haredi political parties.