Turn the Jewish religion into a positive force: treat haredim as equal, not dominant - opinion

Haredim thought that to remain faithful to Jewish tradition, they would have to fight modernity completely.

 JEWS PRAY at the Western Wall. The creation of the State of Israel is one of the great religious redemptive events of Jewish history, states the writer.  (photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
JEWS PRAY at the Western Wall. The creation of the State of Israel is one of the great religious redemptive events of Jewish history, states the writer.
(photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The creation of the State of Israel is one of the great religious redemptive events of Jewish history. Therefore, this should be an age when Judaism flourishes and the religion strengthens state-building with purpose and inspiration. Sadly, Jewish religion in Israel has become a force for anti-democracy, for anti-Arabs and racist views, for mistreatment of other religions, for inequality of women, for dodging military or national service. Religious understanding has been so distorted that Israeli society conventionally assumes that this destructive version of Judaism is the true version of Jewish religion.

It all started with haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism. Haredim thought that to remain faithful to Jewish tradition, they would have to fight modernity completely. They went all out to block modern culture from their community, culture, and education. Fearful of being undermined, they refused to dialogue or cooperate with other viewpoints. They concentrated authority and policy decision making among a handful of gedolim (great ones/masters of Halacha-Jewish Law) and rabbis. These men – only men – made decisions in all fields and could never be wrong because they were considered endowed with ruach hakodesh (divine spirit).

Their “divine” authority was superior to human laws and policies. In accordance with the passivity of rabbinic tradition, the gedolim rejected Zionism and its call to take power and go back to the Jewish homeland. The haredi leaders prohibited any cooperation with Zionists and other sinners (in their view: non-haredim). This was a catastrophic decision. The masses of haredi Jews remained in Europe where 90% were wiped out by the Nazis.

Already in the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Salanter pointed out three fundamental problems in this religious worldview. Firstly, unable to handle choices and alternatives, haredim created a way of life of minutely detailed behaviors in every aspect of living. These were enforced by conformity and social control, at the expense of spiritual concerns. Note: This is the haredi way of proceeding today.

Secondly, they often focused on ritual behaviors and neglected the ethical commandments which are so central to the Torah. They were under so much pressure as a counterculture that this one-sidedness often slipped into a tacit bargain. In return for ritual and communal conformity, people would not be held accountable for ethical breaches and violations – especially toward ‘outsiders.’ Note: See Arye Deri, still head of the Shas Party, although twice convicted for bribery and corruption.

Thirdly, they convinced themselves that they exclusively were following God’s dictates. There was little self-awareness and almost no self-criticism in the community. The feeling of being under siege from the larger community and defensiveness further stifled honest disagreements or weighing policy choices.

 CLEAR DIVIDE? Haredim in Bnei Brak. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
CLEAR DIVIDE? Haredim in Bnei Brak. (credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

The absence of discussion or evaluation brought out the great ones’ unalloyed conviction of always being right and the tendency to dismiss any dissenting voice as heretical. Salanter was convinced that in the absence of self-analysis and group critique, the decisors/policymakers would twist Torah to fit their needs and biases instead of ruling for the benefit of the whole community. Note: Reflecting their narrow lens and lack of background, the gedolim initially refused to instruct haredim to take COVID-19 vaccines or act to prevent contagion. Today, their insistence on complete exemption from IDF or national service for haredim shows their inability to see beyond their constituency or assess realistically the feelings of the general society.

The Haredi community

AFTER 1945, haredim set about rebuilding their community with single-minded devotion. Many non-Orthodox philanthropists and secular Jews supported them out of nostalgia or guilt about the Shoah. Shimon Peres on behalf of Ben-Gurion, offered a draft exemption for haredi Torah scholars – out of belief that they might well disappear – even with this help.

Sheltered and supported by the rest of the Jews, the haredim grew mightily. Their ranks were reinforced by the rise of a Sephardi ba’al teshuva movement (secular repentant return to observance), expressed politically in the Shas Party. Shas exploited the resentment at the old Labor-dominated governments for mistreating Sephardi olim (immigrants) and breaking the religious-cultural bonds of the Sephardi Arab communities brought to Israel.

From 1977 on, the haredim entered governing coalitions. Government support grew exponentially. The draft exempt population soared. For the first time in history, masses of haredim were supported not to work but to study Torah full time. There was much absenteeism but the in-group morality of the haredim permitted this evasion because the government – run by non-haredi Jews – was treated as equivalent to Gentile governments in Diaspora.

With Netanyahu’s rise to power – and especially after he grew dependent on haredim to forge majority coalitions – government support for the haredi community, educational system and yeshivot, grew by quantum leaps. The expansion of support without requiring core curriculum subjects meant that haredim could not contribute to building Israel economically. The trend pointed to serious future skilled-labor shortages and an unsustainable welfare burden on the Israeli economy. The high birth rates among haredim projected haredi electoral power dominance in a few decades.

No leading politician was willing to confront the issue because they sought haredi participation in a coalition they could lead. Yair Lapid did put the issue on the table, so the haredi parties declared him persona non grata to head any future coalition. The other Center-Right politicians got the message.

As haredi strength grew, they took over the Chief Rabbinate and its courts system, hitherto a dati leumi (national Zionist) preserve. The rabbinic courts (with no women judges) were biased against women. They enabled the creation of a large class of agunot – women denied a gett/divorce by recalcitrant husbands. The vast bulk of Russian olim of Jewish descent, admitted under Law of Return, were denied or driven away from conversion by rabbinic court demands that they agree to live haredi-style observant lives.

The haredim were indifferent to non-haredi concerns. The Interior Ministry – controlled by Shas – mistreated Christians or denied reasonable accommodation for Christian organizations, staff, or clergy under cover of the claim that all Christians were missionaries. These approaches offended foreign populations and hurt Israel’s international standing.

THE FOUNDATION of the haredi worldview is that there are no legitimate alternative religious positions. They cannot allow any recognition of other religious views. When Netanyahu worked out a compromise to provide non-Orthodox religious services at Robinson’s Arch away from the main Western Wall, the haredi street pressured him to repudiate the agreement – even though this would offend American Jews and weaken support for Israel.

The climax of the strengthening of the haredim is the drive to undercut judicial review. This assault on democracy would not have been possible without the partnership with Netanyahu’s Likud and his desire to cripple the judiciary. Still, despite the haredi parties backing away (in public only) when they realized the anger they had unleashed upon themselves, this affair shows the truth that must be confronted.

The haredim are not bound by the democratic principles of equality and reciprocity. Therefore, they will set no limits on their requirements and goals. The limit must be set by the general political leadership. In the short term, they must create majority coalitions that exclude the haredim. To do so, they have to recruit the Arab parties to shift from anti-Zionism and – like Ra’am has done – accept a Jewish state but work for full democracy and equal treatment for all.

This is bad news for Benny Gantz and his National Unity Party who have courted the haredim and tried to recruit them to back a coalition led by him. The haredim will almost certainly not switch because only Netanyahu will offer them a blank check for their community policies. But the price of including them in any government would be underwriting continuing haredi hegemony that will undermine the democratic state of Israel.

The only way to protect democracy – and to save the haredim from themselves – is to put limits on government funding of the haredi way of life. We must stop the ruinous financing, end their coercive monopolies and require reciprocity and fair share bearing of national responsibility. haredim should be supported as an alternative religious minority but only on a par with other appreciated minorities.

Let me add that nothing I have written here justifies the current outburst of hateful language and unmitigated hostility directed at the haredim. The way to correct a problem in a democracy is by respectful political action that checks excesses. The haredi excesses were encouraged by Netanyahu. He offered unsustainable payoffs to get their support of other policies, such as upholding him, expanded settlements, politicization of education and culture, and holding Arabs down.

When balance is restored, the haredi community will go to work and expand its responsibility to national service. I would also predict a continued increase in its women’s education and leadership and a reduction in its birth rates.

The most important check – that will be healthy for haredim and healing for Israeli society – will be to take back the definition of Jewish religion. The establishment of Jewish religion in Israel must be revised to also support pluralist religious and secular Jewish ways of living.

This requires a revival of a progressive Orthodoxy which is open to positive modern values. This Orthodoxy would accept the free competition of non-Orthodox streams and would seek out and incorporate non-halachic Russian Jews. It would live respectfully with secular Jewishness and offer positive treatment to Arabs and all non-Jewish religions in Israel.

Describing this renewal will be the challenge of my next column on this issue.

The author is an oleh. He was a leader in American modern Orthodoxy and an activist for pluralism and a more Jewish communal agenda.