What were the rabbis thinking?

The fall of the outwardly observant Katsav and the consequent humiliation of the presidency strikes at the heart of religious Zionist images of ‘mamlahtiut’ (patriotic statism).

It’s certainly not the first time that religious-zionist rabbis have raised eyebrows. But their latest letter, supporting convicted rapist and former president Moshe Katsav, took just about everybody by surprise.
The letter – signed by Rabbis Shlomo Aviner, Tzvi Tau and others – called the verdict into question, encouraged Katsav to be strong and declared that his innocence would eventually come to light. In a follow-up statement, Aviner explained that the press had influenced the court and its gentile judge, who convicted Katsav without adequate evidence. Fortunately, other prominent rabbis, such as Aharon Lichtenstein and Ya’acov Ariel, quickly responded, rejecting the judgement of the original letter and identifying it as a potential desecration of God’s name (hillul Hashem).
I am as dismayed as the next person by the content of the letter, which certainly does not reflect well on these rabbis’ moral vision or political judgment. Still, together with much of the shocked public, I found myself wondering what the rabbis were thinking. What would prompt otherwise thoughtful people to issue such a problematic statement, when they must have known it would be made public and condemned? From where came the confidence that they know more than the court, given that the trial was held behind closed doors? Still, I think we can look for cultural and ideological reasons why these rabbis might support Katsav, condemn the court that convicted him and challenge the honesty of the victims.
THE RABBIS’ letter reflects three deep-seated attitudes within a significant portion of the more “right-wing” rabbinic elite. First, these religious Zionist rabbis, like their haredi counterparts, do not trust the judicial system or the secular press.
Not even a little bit. The court’s unequivocal conviction of Katsav and its condemnation of his behavior in the strongest terms means little to these rabbis, since they perceive the court system as a hotbed of the post-Zionist secular left.
Moreover, Katsav was roundly censured by the press even before the court’s verdict. For many religious Zionist rabbis, the judicial system and the secular press have an agenda to turn this into “a state of all its citizens” rather than “a Jewish state.”
For the press and judges, particularly the Christian- Arab judge who presided over the Katsav case, that agenda overcame truth, especially when dealing with outwardly observant people like Katsav.
Indeed, a few years back, Aviner himself was reviled in reports that claimed he had behaved inappropriately with married women he had been counseling. Those charges never led to any legal action. Perhaps Aviner identifies strongly with observant men who claim that the press has invented sexual harassment claims against them.
Second, the institution of the presidency resonates with important ideals of nationalist religious Zionism.
The president symbolizes the miracle of renewed Jewish sovereignty and independence, but that office does not resolve all the dilemmas religious Jews face when dealing with a secular state, since the president possesses no political power. Hence he cannot be blamed for government policies that violate Jewish law.
Moreover, an observant president like Katsav, who instituted daily prayers in the president’s official residence, anticipates the messianic potential embedded in the country and its public institutions, which may all one day adopt Orthodox observance, helping to fulfill the destiny of the Jewish people as a holy nation. The fall of the outwardly observant Katsav and the consequent humiliation of the presidency as an institution strikes at the heart of religious Zionist images of mamlahtiut (patriotic statism).
Third, the rabbis who signed the pro-Katsav letter put great stock in tzniut, female modesty, and encourage young women to cover themselves, to prefer the private domestic sphere and to adopt a meek stance when compared to men. These same rabbis have been quite insistent in their own criticism of Orthodox feminist women who take the initiative in the public square to demand changes in Jewish law, religious custom or communal policy.
On the one hand, adulterous relations, indeed rape, in the office of the president seem like the antithesis of the value of tzniut, something these rabbis would be sure to condemn. On the other hand, the women who complained against Katsav took on a role that pushes against the sensibilities linked with tzniut. They are self-assured women who are not afraid to challenge the male power structure.
It seems likely that the rabbis who signed the letter are profoundly concerned about the inappropriateness of assertive women who fight back against the male establishment.
As I’m a deeply committed religious Zionist, the rabbis’ letter left me angry, upset and embarrassed. By trying to understand their motives, I certainly do not mean to justify their statements. But perhaps understanding their motives will put us – the vast majority of Jews who do not want Torah tainted by such statements – in a better position to state the obvious: Judaism condemns rape and sexual harassment, no matter who commits them; we should be protecting the victims rather than reassuring the perpetrator; and spokespeople for Judaism should avoid saying hurtful and dangerous things, particularly when they have no evidence.
The writer is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University. He also teaches Talmud and Jewish thought in Jerusalem.