I am a modern Orthodox Israeli liberal who, like half the Israeli population, voted for one of the parties of the Right-to-Left change government of the past year. I write sadly, and in trepidation, for the fate of my country’s democratic foundations and indeed, its very survival. The short-lived outgoing government now looks as if it were no more than a fleeting moment of liberal grace.
Thanks to its high birthrate, the right-wing Orthodox haredi population camp is on the ascendant. As one of Israel’s most incisive journalists and commentators, Nadav Eyal, notes in a recent column on the Ynet website, Israel as a whole will soon look much more like them.
What did Eyal write?
The new government, Eyal writes, will do nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It will backpedal on public health, sustainability and the climate crisis. No less ominously, the incoming government declares that it will enact legislation to enable a simple Knesset majority to overrule High Court rulings, politicize judicial appointments and enable corrupt politicians to serve in high office. As this happens, the country will cast aside the practices and principles of enlightened and tolerant Western democracy.
Israelis of the Left and Center will leave, quietly but steadily and Israel as we know it will collapse. “These changes will take place just like Ernest Hemingway described how you go bankrupt: ‘Gradually and then suddenly,’” Eyal concludes.
But what Eyal misses is that the future of Torah observance and Jewish tradition also stands on the brink. Is the Torah, as it is lived here in Israel, doomed to become a shallow, reactionary and utterly false shadow of its complex tradition, one that estranges us from the wisdom, knowledge, culture and values of other civilizations? Is it possible, God forbid, that we are witnessing, at least here, the last sad breaths of a Judaism that proclaims human dignity, freedom and rights?
The success of the ultra-Orthodox parties and even more so of the party that calls itself the Religious Zionists is a disaster for the Torah. They declare Jewish supremacy, unbridled power, contempt for democracy, civil rights, secular education and religious ethnic tolerance. It creates a suffocating feeling that God’s name is being desecrated.
Since the election, I and many others like me no longer feel comfortable wearing the knitted kippah, long the emblem of modern Orthodox Zionism, in public. I can no longer bear to be identified with the political and sociological camp that has coopted this symbol. For the time being, I’m wearing a cap instead. But, while that might solve my personal dilemma, it would do nothing to save the world and the Torah.
It’s terrible. The Torah in which I believe, in the light of which I was educated in outstanding yeshivot and which I teach my children, is in palpable danger. We cannot accept that and we must fight it. This great and urgent task requires courageous and comprehensive mobilization.
There is a sizeable liberal religious community in Israel that sees no contradiction between halachic observance and living by humanist ideals. Most of its members probably hold right-wing or Centrist views, but there is also a significant number of leftists, like me.
But this community, part and parcel of Israeli science, scholarship, economics and culture has remained silent. These are religious Israelis who abhor racism and violence, yet, fearing a schism, they treat racists and thugs with kid gloves.
THIS LARGE and bewildered public must wake up. It can no longer remain silent. We must loudly and boldly declare our commitment to liberal values, human rights, democracy, science and open education. We must battle the racism and nationalism that are eroding the best of Israeli society. It is time, in other words, for us to separate ourselves from the public that has seized our home.
And there’s something else that pains me in the extreme but which must be said: A large part of the blame for our current impasse lies at the feet of the religious leaders of the liberal religious community.
Torah education, is it thriving?
We are a community with fine, thriving and respected institutions of Torah education and scholarship, the names of which are known to anyone familiar with the modern Orthodox community in Israel. I address myself in sorrow to the rabbis – both men and women – who lead and teach in these institutions. You have remained all too reticent and passive.
It is hard for me to say this. Many of you are my teachers. I have learned much from you, indeed the very values I speak of here. But, I humbly submit that, for too long, you have preferred silence to speech, and have turned every statement on a controversial issue over and over, eviscerating it before making it public.
I accept that caution and moderation are important; the problem is that you have refrained from establishing any clear red lines. With just a few exceptions, you have voiced criticism of other religious institutions only in private conversations and closed forums.
Now, however, the horses have been let out of the barn and are running wild. Do you not see who has taken control of the discourse? Do you not realize what types of people are now redefining Jewish identity? Sadly, they are now the public face of Judaism in Israel, in the eyes of the larger Israeli public and for our own youth.
I know many of you feel uneasy in the wake of the election. But where are your voices? You prefer to spread light rather than censure the darkness. You know who is to blame but you are making a mistake by nevertheless showing respect for them.
Yes, speaking out comes at a price, one you will pay not only in the virtual world but also in yeshivot, schools and synagogues. The toxic operation that has poisoned public discourse over the last year and a half will direct its wrath toward you. Other rabbis, relishing their victory, will attack and revile you.
But both Israel and Jewish tradition have reached a critical and dangerous crossroads. You must ask yourselves honestly: Have we not now reached the point when there is no choice but to speak out bravely against the foul winds now raging? Is it not time to speak openly with your students, as with the public as a whole, about what it means to be the citizens of a democratic state and a Jew?
LOOK AT the events of the last few days. A new Knesset member proudly displayed a photo from his army service showing him abusing three handcuffed Bedouin detainees. The head of his political party participated in a memorial service for the leader of a Jewish terrorist movement. A member of their party appointed a young man convicted of a violent crime, a resident of a wildcat West Bank settlement, to be her parliamentary assistant.
On Shabbat November 18/19, dozens of Jews violently attacked Palestinians in Hebron. IDF soldiers beat up left-wing activists and were then commended by several Knesset members. Another leader of their party stated that human rights organizations are an existential danger. I will leave the historical comparisons for you to make on your own.
Throughout all of this, you have remained silent. The legislation to emasculate the courts will soon pass, eliminating all checks on the Knesset’s power and all protections for the weak. The new Kahanist minister of national security will issue new open-fire orders that will for all practical purposes allow soldiers to use their weapons at will and prevent any investigation of incidents in which there is reason to believe that they used excessive force or deliberately injured or killed innocent people.
Other planned legislation will allow discrimination against minorities on racial grounds, and will permit rabbinic courts to impose new stringencies on non-Jews who want to convert to Judaism, Jews who want to divorce, and women who cannot remarry because their husbands have disappeared. And haredi schools will be exempted from any requirement to teach basic core subjects. These are just a few examples and that’s without touching on the culture of lies, fabrications and corruption that is rife in much of the Netanyahu camp.
Will you continue to be silent even then? Don’t any of the Torah teachings we learned from you have anything to say about these issues? Are these only abstract intellectual issues? Time is running out. The longer you persist in your silence, the less likely will you be able to say in the future, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see” (Deuteronomy 21:7).
You must know that there are many people in the religious and secular communities who are waiting to hear your voices and yearn for a different Judaism unlike the kind this new government represents.
It’s time to stop pretending that our camp, that of Orthodox Zionism, is one unified body. The camp represented by the knitted kippah has not been unified for some time. It is now imperative that the cracks already long evident be widened and deepened rather than simply bandaged over.
It is time to mobilize and stand up for ourselves. We must establish a solid and stable religious-moral alternative, for which its “ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). “For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life, and through this thing, you will lengthen your days upon the land to which you are crossing over the Jordan, to possess it” (Deuteronomy 32:47).
The writer is a graduate of the Ein Tzurim yeshiva of the Religious Kibbutz Movement and a scholar of rabbinic literature.