The new Zionists: Ultra-Orthodoxy has effectively surrendered to the Zionist idea

One hundred and twenty years after declaring it Judaism’s ‘Enemy No. 1,’ ultra-Orthodoxy has effectively surrendered to the Zionist idea.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party sits with other ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government during a Knesset session, November 23 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party sits with other ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government during a Knesset session, November 23
(photo credit: Courtesy)
WITH ORGANS installed in synagogues, German inserted into prayer books, Jewish scholars disowning the messiah, and Jewish schools teaching history, philosophy and math, a flabbergasted Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) ruled: “All that is novel is forbidden from the Torah.”
Two centuries on, ultra-Orthodoxy’s resistance of religious change remains as fierce as it was when its revered founder consecrated the slogan that still remains its emblem, rallying cry and mission statement. However, in the war that his successors initiated generations later – the war on Zionism – ultra-Orthodoxy is in the throes of a grand retreat.
The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) war was declared the morning after Zionist prophet Theodor Herzl published in 1896 his own mission statement, “The Jewish State,” the platform for the Jews’ political resurrection, which most rabbis rejected as blasphemy.
On the Hasidic end, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn (1860-1920) ruled that even if the Zionists had been observant, and “even if there had been room to believe they will achieve their aim,” observant Jews “should not listen to them” because the Talmud forbade the Jews to undo their exile, and a Jew’s hope is that “our redemption will be brought about by God himself.”
Anti-Hasidic sages went a step further and ordered their followers to boycott Zionism.
Jews must avoid “connecting with what amounts to religion’s destruction and an obstacle to the house of Israel,” wrote Lithuanian sage Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, while the chief rabbi of Lodz, Eliyahu Meisel, wrote that “anyone with God’s fear in his heart shall distance himself from them [the Zionists], will not walk with them, and will keep his legs from their paths.”
One hundred and twenty years on, a Hasid is a minister in the Zionist government; thousands of ultra-Orthodox men serve in the Zionist army and a plethora of ultra-Orthodox colleges lead thousands into the Zionist state’s economic beehive and social mainstream.
Reform Judaism, which also originally opposed Zionism claiming the Jews had already been redeemed when Europe emancipated them, humbly changed its mind after Hitler’s rise to power, and in 1937 formally adopted the Zionist idea.
Ultra-Orthodoxy delivered no such note of surrender; not after Hitler’s rise to power, not after the Holocaust, not after Israel’s establishment, and not even after the 1967 Six Day War, which other religious Jews interpreted as proof that Zionism was God’s will.
Addressing his followers in the summer of 1967, Lithuanian-born and Bnei Brak-based Haredi leader Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach (1899-2001) accused a victory-drunk Israel of having “completely deviated from the manner and the course in which we have walked throughout our exile.”
Like the rabbis of Herzl’s time, he still saw in Zionism a reincarnation of Judaism’s great messianic trauma, the Shabtai Tzvi affair, when most rabbis accepted a 17th century Ottoman Jew as the messiah only to eventually see him convert to Islam.
Moreover, Shach resented the very marriage of Jews and power. Recalling longingly the days when the Jews were “one sheep among 70 wolves,” the Haredi sage claimed that the newly warring Jews had suddenly emerged as “the arbiter between the wolves.”
Alarmed by the euphoria about him, Shach reiterated ultra-Orthodoxy’s original dismissal of the Zionist quest to transform the Jews into an active nation. “Things have turned around,” he said lamentingly, “and the people of Israel enters a situation whereby it is a factor among the nations, and who knows what this situation’s results might be.”
Unimpressed with Israel’s military victory, he preached, “There is neither redemption nor the beginning of redemption here… we remain in exile, which remains as bitter as it ever was.” The Torah, he noted on another occasion, was given in the desert. “We didn’t have the Land of Israel then, or ‘territories,’ yet we were an eternal nation.”
That, in brief, was the mindset with which a bloodied, minuscule and humbled Haredi community struggled to build itself in the shadows of the Zionist enterprise that its founders derided as heresy.
The result would be an improbable journey into a joint future, a political voyage and social odyssey during which Israeli ultra- Orthodoxy grew in numbers, space and sway until its formula of accommodation with the Jewish state became the victim of its own success.
Numbering hardly 30,000 in 1948, the young Jewish state’s Haredi community was on the defensive – ideologically, socially and politically.
Ideologically, it had to explain its thinkers’ failure to see the approach of calamity, a rabbinical blindness that contrasted Zionism’s foresight and was morbidly symbolized in the Warsaw Ghetto’s last Seder. Held with the Zionist-led uprising’s fire exchanges already audible outside, the Seder was led by Rabbi Eliezer Meisel, one of the ghetto’s last deportees to Auschwitz and grandson of Rabbi Eliyahu Meisel, who had boycotted Zionism.
In addition to this moral burden, Israel Orthodoxy had to rehabilitate from the Holocaust’s blow to its demographics and reach an accord with the Jewish state that would somehow help its restoration in the shadows of Zionism’s victory and demands.
THE HOLOCAUST was explained away as God’s will. “There is an account in all this,” said Shach in a sermon titled “And a Storm Rages.” God, he explained, “conducted a one-on-one account, a long account spanning centuries until the account accumulated to six million Jews, and that is how the Holocaust happened. That is what a Jew should believe, and if a Jew is not wholesome in this faith then he is a heretic.”
While Zionists, both secular and observant, dismissed this narrative of guilt as escapist and denialist, all ended up saluting ultra-Orthodoxy’s political maneuvering opposite the Jewish state. Launched unassumingly in 1948, it was based on the formula that was revolutionized in 1977 and is now coming undone.
The undeclared aim was to restore the proverbial ghetto, where thick and tall social walls would keep rabbinical authority unquestioned and modernity’s temptations at bay.
The key to such social resignation lay in the Jewish state’s leading social welder – the army. If Haredi men joined the army, they might cease to be ultra-Orthodox. If exempted, their distinctiveness would be preserved and, in fact, deepened.
Haredi rabbis, therefore, met with David Ben-Gurion while the War of Independence was still raging and requested that the IDF not conscript their young men. Hitler, they said, burned Europe’s network of Talmudic academies and they were out to rebuild it. Though himself a deeply secular man, Ben-Gurion was moved by the argument and agreed to grant deferments from military service. He had, however, some conditions.
First, he extended only 400 deferments, which even in 1948 was but a fraction of one percent of the newborn IDF’s 115,000 conscripts. Second, Ben-Gurion demanded that the undrafted indeed study Torah, as the rabbis said they would.
It was a modest beginning, memorably animated by Ben-Gurion’s meeting four years later with the ultra-Orthodox leader of the time, Avraham Karelitz, better known as “the Hazon Ish,” or “a man’s vision,” as he titled one of his books of Talmudic exegesis.
Unlike subsequent meetings between secular and Haredi leaders, that one was not about political horse trading. Initiated by the intellectually curious Ben-Gurion, it was about ideas. “If two camels meet on a narrow path,” said the rabbi, “one burdened with a cargo and the other carrying no cargo, the one without cargo is supposed to make way for the one with the cargo.”
Borrowed from a Talmudic ruling, the parable’s moral was that those not burdened by the demands of Jewish law should make way for those who choose to bear this burden.
Though insulted by the comparison, and though later noting that the rabbi had no recipe for a Jewish state’s attitude toward freedom of conscience, Ben-Gurion left intact his deal with the ultra-Orthodox. The ghetto’s slow but steady construction now proceeded unopposed. By 1968, the 400- man quota had doubled, and by 1977, an aggregate 25,000 Haredi men had already avoided full military service since Israel’s establishment.
This social nucleus of the emerging ghetto incubated in the secluded neighborhoods where the ultra-Orthodox lived with their rabbis close to their schools, yeshivas and shops. This self-segregation was further cemented by the men’s failure to acquire vocations, in line with their commitment to spend their time studying Torah, all of which reduced to a minimum their daily contact with the rest of society.
Economically, since breadwinning was left to the women, who in turn worked mostly as underpaid teachers, ultra- Orthodox households soon counted among the country’s poorest.
This formula, of maximum piety alongside minimum livelihood, service and social integration, allowed ultra-Orthodoxy’s growth during the early years. By the Six Day War, major Hasidic groups like Gur and Belz, which were decimated in the Holocaust, were back on their feet, while Shach’s Ponevezh Yeshiva, the Harvard of ultra- Orthodoxy, had already produced a generation of Israel-born Talmudic scholars.
By the mid-70s, there already were some 200,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis, representing a more confident community, but still one on the social margins where it might have remained but for a political earthquake that rattled the outside world, and whose many aftershocks included an offer that ultra-Orthodoxy’s politicians could not refuse.
The earthquake was Labor’s loss of power in 1977, and the offer that came from the winner of that seminal election, the Likud’s Menachem Begin, was as simple as it was sincere: unlimited draft deferments, generous budgets and senior government positions in return for a long-term alliance between ultra-Orthodoxy and the right.
Ultra-Orthodoxy embraced the deal that became a pillar of the political order, unaware that from the viewpoint of its founders’ war on Zionism it would prove a Faustian bargain.
The upside, from the Haredi viewpoint, was that what began with an annual 400 draft deferments quickly mushroomed to thousands, while government funds flowed directly into the budgets of yeshivas, seminaries, elementary schools and kindergartens, and assorted tax breaks and incentives helped ultra-Orthodox households increase their available income.
MOREOVER, THE deal included unprecedented power, highlighted by an ultra- Orthodox politician’s appointment as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.
Hoping to stick to its guns in its war on Zionism, ultra-Orthodoxy avoided taking cabinet positions ‒ benefitting from the Zionist enterprise was one thing; legitimizing and accepting responsibility for its actions was another. And so, the original formula of minimum service for maximum piety made way for what critics now derided as maximum authority for minimum responsibility.
At the same time, Haredi women were bearing more than twice as many babies as secular women while their households were developing a dependency on the state’s child allowances, which, thanks to formulas concocted by ultra-Orthodox politicians, could reach a monthly $2,000 for a family with 10 kids. This was besides a plethora of budget transfers and tax breaks custom-tailored for Haredi beneficiaries.
By the turn of the century, the annual number of ultra-Orthodox men avoiding full IDF service had crossed 7,000 ‒ enough to man two combat brigades.
Besides provoking the middle class, where many felt they were financing a celebration of draft-dodging and voluntary unemployment, this arrangement also perverted the Jewish tradition that, while cherishing lifelong study, had never financed it for more than a select few.
It was an anomaly that had to explode, and it did.
The first setback to the formula of 1977 came in 1999, when ultra-Orthodoxy’s political deal fueled the rise of a political party dedicated to this formula’s eradication.
Led by outspoken journalist Tommy Lapid, it won six Knesset seats that year, and 15 four years later.
Lapid’s electoral success both expressed and fanned popular anger in the middle class that serves in the army, fuels the economy, pays taxes and feeds the budget that, in his view, ultra-Orthodoxy abused.
While this electoral dynamic pressured the ghetto walls from outside, economics would pressure them from within following new legislation in 2002.
With the Treasury fearing that the budget would soon be unable to finance the growing number of non-working Haredi men, a bill written by a public panel allowed ultra-Orthodox men to go to work at age 23 in return for shortened military service.
On the face of it, this acceptance of reduced service further bolstered Haredi privilege, as Lapid indeed charged and the Supreme Court later agreed, prompting the Knesset to rewrite what is known as the “Tal Law,” named after its formulator, Justice Tzvi Tal. Yet, this legislation signaled to ultra-Orthodoxy that its deal had exhausted itself: if their community were to survive, its men would have to work.
The following year, the 1977 deal was dealt its most devastating blow when Ariel Sharon left the ultra-Orthodox out of his coalition ‒ the first time the right had done such a thing. The long-term deal signed with Begin proved to have an expiration date, and it had arrived.
Faced with a harsh recession, Sharon and his finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, cut in half the child allowances that had become central in many ultra-Orthodox families’ livelihoods. Prodded by Lapid, who was now deputy prime minister, they also trimmed government funding for yeshivas and other Haredi causes.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians felt choked.
With 65 percent of ultra-Orthodox males unemployed and their average income less than half that of the rest of the population, Haredi rabbis realized they needed a new deal with the Jewish state.
The ideal of non-work was, therefore, quietly abandoned. Ultra-Orthodox vocational schools began to sprout in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, initially training plumbers, mechanics, electricians and nurses, and then spreading to computer engineering, accounting and law.
A decade after the passage of the Tal Law, 12 mainstream universities and colleges were offering special programs in which 7,000 students were enrolled and 8,000 had already graduated. It has since become a groundswell. Last year, the Council for Higher Education reported that 9,000 ultra-Orthodox students were studying for an undergraduate degree, following the previous year’s 8,300.
At the same time, the IDF opened special units for ultra-Orthodox men, who increasingly realize that proper military service is the best entry ticket into the workplace.
What began with a lone infantry battalion, soon became three, and then spread to the air force and navy where former yeshiva students are now mechanics; to intelligence, where they became analysts; to computers, where they became programmers; and to human resources, where they became personnel clerks.
Last year, a record 2,400 ultra-Orthodox men enlisted out of 8,000 called, and the numbers keep rising. Meanwhile, the Israel Police last year trained and hired 15 ultra- Orthodox criminal investigators. This is besides the hundreds who are doing National Service at first aid stations, old age homes, hospitals and charities.
Most symbolically, following a Supreme Court ruling that deputy ministers cannot function as de facto ministers, ultra- Orthodoxy’s Council of Sages approved its senior politician, Yaakov Litzman’s acceptance of a full cabinet membership as Health Minister.
The rabbis’ longstanding refusal to let their representative swear allegiance to the Zionist government and to become responsible for its deeds – was thus abandoned, reflecting the steady retreat from the historic formula of maximum authority and minimum responsibility.
This is not to say, however, that the previous reality is now history.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis still live in separate neighborhoods; most Haredi men still don’t serve, work or study to acquire a profession; some in the units the IDF opened for them are not fully ultra-Orthodox; the laws that ease Haredi men into the workforce are still unfair to the rest of the population and remain a political bone of contention; ultra-Orthodox schools still refuse to teach a core curriculum of secular studies; and a hard core of diehard fanatics is fighting to uphold ultra-Orthodoxy’s seclusion.
Still, the walls of the ultra-Orthodox ghetto have been breached and thousands are pouring out, much the way the Jews of Germany, Austria and Hungary did when their own ghetto walls fell between the times of Moshe Sofer and Herzl.
Back then, it took hardly two generations before the newly freed Jews became lawyers, doctors, dentists, scientists, publishers, journalists, bankers, and tycoons.
The same process is underway in Israel – the Zionist creation where more than half a million ultra-Orthodox Jews now speak no language other than the Hebrew that Zionism revived; the Jewish state where thousands of ultra-Orthodox men now hold rifles and swear on the Bible that they are prepared to die in its defense; the Jewish state where Haredi young adults increasingly mesh daily in the workplace with the secular majority; the Jewish state where every Sunday morning a broad-bearded Gur Hasid removes his fedora while taking his seat around the cabinet table and joining the business of realizing what started off as Theodore Herzl’s dream and most rabbis’ nightmare.