Bayit Yehudi’s budding religious Zionist revolution

Long cowed by the haredim and its own hardal wing, mainstream religious Zionism is fighting back

Haredi370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Ever since Election Day, public attention has focused on whether the new government will finally end the anomaly whereby most haredi men neither work nor do army service. But the spotlight on the haredim has obscured the equally significant crossroads now facing another community: Will religious Zionism finally emerge from the haredi world’s shadow?
Religious Zionism has long suffered from an inferiority complex toward the haredim. On numerous religious issues that affect the functioning of the state, from conversion to shmita (the rules governing agriculture during the sabbatical year), religious Zionist rabbis have been afraid to confront their haredi counterparts head-on and boldly push their own halachic interpretations. Instead, the community has repeatedly sat back and let the secular High Court of Justice decide such issues.  This was a declaration of religious bankruptcy: We can’t compete on the religious field, it said; we can prevail only in a nonreligious arena.
This subservience has been compounded by the rise of the hardal movement. The Hebrew acronym, which stands for “haredi national religious,” describes Orthodox Jews who remain committed to the Zionist project, including army service and productive labor, but have adopted haredi religious norms. This refers not just to specific issues, such as stringent separation of the sexes, but to acceptance of rabbinic dictates in every walk of life. Thus while mainstream religious Zionists believe, for instance, that rabbis have no special expertise in politics, hardalim, like haredim, think politicians should take orders from their rabbis.
But November’s primary in the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi party now appears to have heralded a far deeper change than Naftali Bennett’s name at the top of the list: Mainstream religious Zionists are finally fighting back.
Take, for instance, the refreshing response by freshman MK Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, after Shas urged religious Zionist rabbis to order Bayit Yehudi MKs “not to dare harm the Torah world” by ending draft exemptions for yeshiva students. “The Torah world is beloved to us no less than to Shas,” Ben-Dahan retorted. “I studied in yeshiva for more years than [Shas leaders] Arye Deri, Eli Yishai and Ariel Attias combined … They’re not going to teach me what Torah is and what Torah study is.”
The religious Zionist world has always boasted some impressive Torah scholars. But a religious Zionist rabbi willing to stand up publicly and say that his community’s Torah scholarship isn’t inferior to the haredi brand is rare indeed.
Or take the equally refreshing response by Bayit Yehudi activists when one religious Zionist rabbi, Tzefania Drori, tried to intimidate Bennett into haredi-style rabbinic subservience. Bayit Yehudi, he warned, must not make a deal on drafting yeshiva students without obtaining rabbinic authorization; “if Bennett makes these kinds of decisions alone, it will be the end of him politically.”
In response, ten of the party’s deputy mayors – i.e., its key local activists – published a stunning open letter demanding that the rabbis stay out of politics and the politicians keep them out. “Please let the politicians do their job,” they told their rabbis. “Hundreds of thousands of voters voted for them for this very purpose.”
Indeed, the signs of a revolt against rabbinic dictates were already evident in the party primary. One leading hardal rabbi, Zvi Tau, was reportedly so incensed by the inclusion of a secular Jew on its slate that he told his students to vote for any party but Bayit Yehudi. But Tau’s views clearly weren’t shared by the tens of thousands of primary voters who catapulted Ayelet Shaked to fifth place on the list. These voters wanted the party to actually start fulfilling its self-declared mission of being a bridge between the religious and secular worlds – and understood that building bridges isn’t compatible with shunning secular Jews who many of its core values.
But the new Bayit Yehudi isn’t the only sign of a brewing religious Zionist revolution: Equally significant is the fact that Rabbi David Stav – chairman of Tzohar, an organization of moderate religious Zionist rabbis – recently announced his candidacy for the post of Ashkenazi chief rabbi, in a bid to wrest the rabbinate from decades of haredi control. Tzohar is best known for conducting free, couple-friendly weddings that still comply with the rabbinate’s religious rules. But Stav has much more ambitious reforms in mind, on issues ranging from divorce – where he wants to institutionalize prenuptial agreements – to kashrut, where he favors promoting competition by privatizing kashrut supervision and reducing the rabbinate to a regulatory role.
A sane, self-confident religious Zionism, committed to finding and implementing halachic solutions to problems such as conversion and divorce, is vital to preserving the Jewish state. A Judaism that can’t provide solutions to such problems will eventually lead Israelis to conclude that the state can survive only by divorcing itself from Judaism. Yet an Israel devoid of Jewish content at the national level would have little to offer its citizens: America and Canada also offer flourishing Judaism at the individual and community levels, without army service or terrorism. Encouraging this budding revolution should thus be of vital interest to all Israelis.
Yet the revolution remains fragile, and could well die aborning if Bayit Yehudi is relegated to the opposition: Should the haredi parties retain their outsize influence over the government while Bayit Yehudi has none, not only will it be unable to effect any positive changes, but many religious Zionists may take this as proof that Bennett erred, and the hardalim who demanded complete rabbinic subservience were right after all.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has so far proven incapable of rising to the occasion: Obsessed with his personal dislike of Bennett, he has shunned Bayit Yehudi, preferring to cling to his veteran haredi allies. And though potential kingmaker Yair Lapid, the man hailed as the “secular mainstream’s” representative, does seem to sense the moment, a sufficient offer from Netanyahu would clearly tempt him to abandon the alliance he has reportedly forged with Bennett.
Thus the fate of the religious Zionist revolution could well rest on the decisions Netanyahu and Lapid make in the coming weeks. For Israel’s sake, let’s hope they make the right ones.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.