Analysis: Instilling the fear of God

Shas and UTJ can inject a measure of Yiddishkeit into Olmert's government.

ovadia yosef looks down  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ovadia yosef looks down
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel Beiteinu's departure leaves the government coalition fragile, creating an opportunity for Shas and United Torah Judaism to instill a little fear of God into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. There are a number of issues high up on the haredi parties' agenda. Top on the list of priorities is the Torah education budget. Shas has managed to reverse an NIS 500 million cut in funds earmarked for adult yeshivot. This puts the total budget at NIS 650m. But due to technical problems, the money still has not been transferred. Shas and UTJ want to make sure Olmert follows through with his promise to restore the yeshiva budget. But the real crisis is with the young men's yeshivot. A petition submitted to the High Court of Justice by the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement, has resulted in a freeze of all transfers of funds from the Education Ministry to the yeshivot. In its petition, the Religious Action Center demanded that haredi yeshivot teach a minimum of secular subjects and Zionism as a condition for receiving state funds. The court ordered the state to either amend the law governing state education funding, or stop transferring money to the yeshivot altogether. No amendments were passed, so funding was halted at least until the next High Court hearing in mid-February. In the meantime, hundreds of yeshivot are being forced to make ends meet without state aid. Torah education has always been dear to the haredi leadership, not only as the single most important religious act a Jew can perform, but also as a means of ensuring Jewish continuity. Out of a desire to secure state funding for Torah education, haredi spiritual leaders have reluctantly condoned political cooperation with secular Zionists, seen as enemies of Orthodox Judaism. In fact, funding of Torah education has eclipsed any other interests, even issues such as religious services. For instance, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, administrative head of the rabbinic courts, said Wednesday that modern Orthodox and haredi MKs had systematically ignored the rabbinic courts when they were under the jurisdiction of the Religious Affairs Ministry. Since the rabbinic courts' transfer to the Justice Ministry four years ago, they have flourished budget-wise. But for the first time in haredi political history, a decidedly security-related issue has rivaled Torah education as the single most important concern of rabbinic leadership and politicians alike: maintaining the unity of Jerusalem. As expected, MK Meir Porush of UTJ's hassidic Agudat Yisrael faction, the most hawkish Ashkenazi haredi parliamentarian in the Knesset, could not join a government open to negotiations with the Palestinians over dividing Jerusalem. But even MKs Moshe Gafni and Avraham Ravitz of the more dovish Lithuanian Degel Hatorah faction will be forced to acquiesce to the overwhelming majority of haredi Judaism, both in Israel and abroad, who strongly opposes even talking about the possibility of a split Jerusalem. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the undisputed halachic authority of haredi Lithuanian Jewry, has expressed total opposition to ceding any part of Jerusalem, including Arab neighborhoods. Elyashiv and others believe that while there is no inherent holiness in Palestinian neighborhoods such as Sheikh Jarrah and Shuafat, transferring control of these places to Palestinians would endanger neighboring Ramat Shlomo and Mea She'arim. Elyashiv's approach to Jerusalem seems to stand in sharp contrast to the approach of Lithuanian Jewry's previous leader, the late Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, who saw catastrophe in Israel's Six Day War victory and the territorial expansion it included. But according to Gafni, who said there was no chance that UTJ would join the present government, even Shach, if he were alive today, would oppose dividing Jerusalem. "Rabbi Elyashiv is no Zionist in the secular meaning of the term. There is no special status ascribed to Jerusalem over and above any other place in Israel. Danger to Jewish life stands at the forefront of Rabbi Elyashiv's concerns," said Gafni. "And that is the same principle that informed Rabbi Shach. "Bringing Palestinian-controlled territory closer to Jewish neighborhoods endangers Jewish lives. And that is what arouses Rabbi Elyashiv's fears."