Posts Tagged 'Orthodox Judaism'

A New Consensus in Israel about What Being Jewish Really Means

Two general elections within a span of five months are a treasure for any researcher, because they bring to light the issues that are most important to each group of voters.

Between the April and September elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not change, the security threats from Iran and the Gaza Strip neither grew nor shrank, and Israel’s population remained almost the same. But a new agenda that was placed at the center of the second election took five Knesset seats from the bloc comprising Likud and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The agenda was the relationship between religion and state, and the person who put it center stage also coined the slogan that most accurately summarizes Israel’s social and political center of gravity: “A Jewish state, not a halakha [Jewish religious law] state.”

One could say that this is the amorphous consensus on Jewish identity in Israel as it has emerged and come together in recent decades. In general terms, beginning in the 1990s Israeli Jewish society underwent two deep processes relating to its identity. On the one hand, Jewish Israelis learned to challenge the authority of Orthodox Judaism as the sole authentic representative of historic Judaism. An increasing number of Jews are shaping their Jewish identity through a wide range of alternative avenues, from pluralistic study forums, through Reform Judaism to New Age-y doctrines like the Yemima Method to the various Bratslav Hasidic courts. This is privatized Judaism, shaped by the individual to meet their cultural, social or spiritual needs. This is also a Judaism that fears for its liberty and the possibility of realizing itself in whatever way it chooses.

On the other hand, we also see in Israel the rise of an ethnic-national Jewish identity, which is based on a sense of tribal belonging and whose meaning is derived from the mission of preserving the security and prosperity of the Jewish people. This Jewish identity is ostensibly collectivist and its center is the national-ethnic (not civic) community. But the demands this identity makes on the individual are minimal, and as such it can be integrated — in a manner that is complementary, not contradictory — into the privatization process. This identity is more strongly tied to Orthodox Judaism, which it considers more authentic and “faithful,” but in the end it also undermines it.

Jewish expressions in Israel

Both social trends stem from the same source: rising individualization in the Western world. The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.

But what happens when the individual is in fact expected to change his behavior? What happens when the government allows and even encourages increased religious influence in the state secular schools, separation between men and women in the public sphere or the closure of grocery stores on the Sabbath? What happens when it threatens to prohibit soccer games on Shabbat or the Eurovision Song Contest? Many who affiliate with ethnic-national Judaism will accept this, and some might even see it as an authentic expression of the heritage with which they identify. But many others will respond to this threat to their autonomy and their lifestyle by turning their backs on the parties that promote it.

Religious antagonism

The fault line between religious and secular is one of the most fundamental in Israel. The socialist Zionism that established the state rejected halakha and saw religion as a relic of the galut, the Jewish Diaspora, which was not only superfluous after the Jewish people returned to the land of its ancestors but was a constant threat to the establishment of a progressive, properly run state. Socialism as a mass progressive vision disintegrated, along with the decades-long rule of Labor Party forerunner Mapai and its ethos, but a fundamental antagonism toward “the religious” is part of Israel’s DNA. Add to this the perceived threat to civil liberties, and this antagonism turns into an electoral force.

The combination of this old antagonism and the insistence on personal freedoms brought Yosef (Tommy) Lapid’s Shinui party 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 election and his son Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid 19 seats in 2013. In September’s election it destroyed Netanyahu’s chance of obtaining a coalition of 61 seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. In my opinion, it also prevented Kahol Lavan from weakening any more than it did. The bottom line is clear: In every election campaign in which the issue of religion and state becomes central, several Knesset seats move from the right-wing bloc to the left or, more accurately, from the right-traditional religious bloc to the central-civic bloc. These seats go not to Meretz, but to parties that offer a clear Jewish identity while also promising to preserve a secular civic space. Both Lapids offered exactly this. Now it was being offered by Lieberman and the four leaders of Kahol Lavan.

Lieberman’s slogan, “A Jewish state, not a halakha state,” precisely expresses this new, all-Israeli combination; on the one hand it emphasizes Jewish identity, while on the other hand it promises to preserve individual liberties. Moshe Feiglin had actually discovered this secret formula earlier, and during the campaign for the April election he used it very successfully with his libertarian party Zehut before he was brought down by campaign errors and Netanyahu’s skill in cannibalizing the bloc. Hayamin Hehadash, whose platform had remarkably similar messages, was hurt as a result of overly cautious wording (for example, party chairman Naftali Bennett stuttered over LGBTQ rights) and  suffered the same cannibalization. Looking forward, we can expect to see this winning combination in every party seeking the votes of mainstream Israelis.

The Haredi parties, in contrast, have maintained their strength, which is based on Orthodox and traditional Jewish voters, for whom personal autonomy and the secular  civic space is less important. The religious Zionist movement is caught in between: Its Haredi minority completed its takeover of the now-defunct National Religious Party (after obtaining similar, if less complete, control of the community’s educational institutions). In the process it alienated a majority of Israelis and even a majority of religious Zionists, who fear for their autonomy no less than secular Israelis do. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who in September ran together with Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz as Yamina, did not gain additional Knesset seats, suggesting that voters recognized that the alliance with the Haredi Zionists would stifle their relatively liberal voice.

Privatized traditionalism

Both election seasons shattered the religious-Zionist dream that secular Israelis wanted a knitted-kippa leadership. It turns out that secular Jews prefer — surprise! — to vote for secular politicians, whether Likud or Kahol Lavan. Beyond that, we are seeing the end of a process that began in the 1990s, with the National Religious Party’s unequivocal affiliation with the right. That move turned religious Zionism, which had always prided itself on being the “hyphen” that brought together Haredim and secular Jews, Torah and science, past and future — into just another right-wing party.

For religious Zionism, the movement toward individualism on the one hand and ethnic nationalism on the other undermined the halakhic dimension. Along with turning the settlement enterprise into a central tenet of faith, identifying with the political right replaced halakha as the fundamental basis of religious-Zionist identity. Bennett and Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party accepted secular right-wingers, but would never have accepted religious leftists.

The two components of Yamina represent two opposing responses to this process. Bennett and Shaked are nothing more Likudniks with a twist, and the platform of their party was not materially different from that of Likud on matters of religion or foreign policy. This model won them around a dozen Knesset seats in 2013, and presumably that was their peak. Politicians such as Smotrich, Peretz and Moti Yogev, however, seek to return the topic of religious law to the fore. But in an age when civil liberties and even liberal causes such as feminism and LGBTQ rights are becoming part of the Israeli consensus, such a move will confirm the party’s place as a small Likud satellite.

The combination of Jewish ethnic nationalism and individualistic liberalism has thus become the main intersection of the range of circles making up Israeli society. Likud, which was founded on a blend of nationalism and liberalism, could have been the primary beneficiary of this situation, had Netanyahu not become completely dependent on his alliance with his “natural partners,” which repels his voters. Kahol Lavan gained from Likud’s loss but it now faces a dilemma since in the absence of a unity government it, too, is dependent on the Haredi parties.

But the importance of the current situation goes well beyond the political arena. The evolving Jewish identity represents a sort of privatized traditionalism, grasping on to a heritage that is dependent upon the will of the individual and custom-made to fit. It is a dynamic, creative Judaism, but it’s also egocentric, and the liberalism it demonstrates toward the Jewish direction (from weddings outside of the rabbinate to LGBTQ rights) does not generally extend into the non-Jewish space. This is Judaism in Israel in the early 21st century, and it shows us that most Israeli Jews will not relinquish their Jewish identity, but at the same time they will rise up against religious coercion and insist on individual liberties, at least for themselves.

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Published in Haaretz, Oct. 29

Assembly-line Jewish conversion

The situation resulting from the immigration of hundreds of thousand of people who are not Jews according to halakha (Jewish religious law) during the 1990s poses a tough challenge to Orthodoxy, a challenge it doesn’t seem able to meet. The reason is simple: In contrast to the conservative and technical nature of halakha, public opinion is characterized by flexibility and joie de vivre. While those hundreds of thousands of people are considered non-Jews by halakha, as far as most Israeli citizens are concerned they are Jews in every respect.

In a poll published by Haaretz a month ago, 75 percent of the secular people questioned said they would not try to prevent a marriage between a relative and “a new immigrant who isn’t Jewish according to halakha,” while among the religious-Zionist respondents only 29 percent wouldn’t object to such a marriage and among the Haredim only 5 percent. All told, 56 percent of Israelis wouldn’t make a big deal about a relative marrying one of these hundreds of thousands.

And lest we think that we dealing with broad cosmopolitan pluralism, the same survey revealed that with regard to a relative marrying an Arab or a European Christian, the objection among the total Israeli population would be 72 percent and 53 percent, respectively. In other words, Israelis aren’t open to everything; these veteran immigrants are simply considered by most Israelis to be Jews, whatever the halakha might say.

The recent debate over the “conversion law” proposed by MK Elazar Stern (Hatnuah) blatantly revealed the degree to which this is almost completely an intra-Orthodox struggle. Stern and the Habayit Hayehudi party want to expand the conversion apparatus, while the Haredi parties object. What emerges from this is that if there is no reform in the conversion process, weddings between those who are Jews according to halakha and those who are not will continue, and those who want to avoid marrying their descendents will be forced to keep genealogical records.

The problem is that even if such a reform is enacted, there will still be those among the strictly religious who will not recognize it and will not accept the descendents of such converts as Jews. So either way there will remain a group of Orthodox Jews that will insist, contrary to most of the nation, on relating to part of the people as non-Jews. The struggle over conversion conditions is nothing but an internal Orthodox scuffle aimed at determining the limits of that group.

So here we have another example, one of many, of self-centered patronizing by the State of Israel’s Orthodox establishment. Its members are fighting among themselves for the right to convert people who aren’t interested in converting, to make them eligible to marry people who even now see nothing wrong with them, and all this just so that they themselves will find it easier in the future to see large parts of the Israeli people as Jews – even though Israelis themselves have long ignored the halakhic categories that this group considers so important.

But what makes this ridiculous festival so sad is a deeper issue. This whole story illustrates not just the Orthodox establishment’s narcissism, but also demonstrates in the most extreme fashion how a major proportion of Israeli rabbis take a totally technical and utilitarian view of halakha, and perhaps of the entire Jewish religion.

After all, what’s going on here? We’re talking about conversion, which is probably the deepest, most personal, and most difficult thing a person can do; it’s changing one’s identity, entering a new framework of meaning, and in this case making a covenant with God and the Jewish people. Conversion is being turned into a pathetic bureaucratic matter, a mechanical procedure entirely designed to calm those rabbis so that their children or their neighbors’ children won’t marry non-Jews, so there won’t be “assimilation.” For this they will expand the conversion system, ease the conditions for conversion, and conduct a marketing campaign for joining the Jewish people as if it were soft drinks.

These rabbis don’t seem to care what motivates the converts or what spiritual journey they have been through. The main thing is to accept them and convert them on an assembly line so that there will be as many Jews as possible – that is, more people who agreed to take some classes and say “Amen” to everything they’re told. All this is to get their status changed on their identity card so the only democracy in the Middle East will allow them to get married and in general treat them like human beings.

And if that’s what the rabbinical establishment looks like, is it any wonder that so few people want to convert?

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published today in Haaaretz.

Untying the knot: Rethinking the Israeli Rabbinate’s Laws on Marriage

"Safa Ahat Udvarim Ahadim: Iyyunim Bemishpat Vehevra" ("One Language and One Set of Words – Studies in Law, Halachah and Society"), by Pinhas Shifman. Shalom Hartman Institute, Bar-Ilan University and Keter Publishing House, 336 pages

book coverAt the beginning of his (failed) campaign for the position of the next Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Rabbi David Stav published a large paid advertisement in the national-religious daily Makor Rishon. In it, he cited some "shocking facts," as he put it: In recent years, about one-third of all secular couples got married abroad so as not to come in contact with the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Among them are people who do not accept or do not like the rabbinate’s marriage procedures, and also members of quite a large group of citizens (about 400,000 ) who are not allowed by law to marry in this country, as the Jewish bona fides of at least one member of the couple are questionable in the eyes of the rabbinate.

Forcing certain procedures based on Halakha (traditional Jewish law ) upon the citizens of Israel is therefore ineffective in two respects: It distances Jews who for various reasons are interested in a civil or different type of religious ceremony, and it is not available to citizens whom the rabbinate does not recognize as Jews. On the other hand, there is concern among the religious authorities that various types of civil marriage agreements will lead to a split among the Jewish population, as the religiously observant will not be prepared to enter into marriages with nonobservant Jews or their descendants.

In his new book, Pinhas Shifman attempts to suggest solutions to this complex situation. Shifman, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University faculty of law, has written numerous books and articles about family law in Israel. A special report he prepared (together with Avishalom Westreich ) for the Metzilah Center for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist Thought on the issue of the possibility of civil marriage in the country was, for example, published (in Hebrew ) in March. He is, therefore, exactly the right person to confront this subject.

In the second part of the book in question, Shifman goes into what could be called the "intra-religious" issue because, in his opinion, it is necessary to deal with the difficult problems created vis-a-vis the wedding ceremony due to Orthodox Halakha. Even if secular Israeli Jews are given the opportunity to marry as they see fit, the religiously observant will still have a problem because they have no other options because of their beliefs. Shifman fears that enabling civil marriage would in fact encourage rabbis and rabbinical court judges to ignore the moral difficulties inherent in the halakhic wedding ceremony as it stands today – that is, "anyone who doesn’t want to [get married this way] doesn’t have to and anyone who sees himself as obligated [to do so] can suffer in silence."

Not Just a Civic Matter

Specifically, Shifman is worried about this tendency because it leaves in place certain injustices that exist in Halakha. Issues like agunot (wives whose husbands will not grant them a get, or bill of divorce ), extortion on the part of husbands in delaying the get, and in general the inequity in traditional Jewish marriage rituals which are being ignored and remain unresolved. Even among poskim (rabbinical arbiters ) who are actually concerned about agunot and other women who suffer ill treatment by their husbands – dealing with such problems for the most part boils down to attempts to circumvent them by finding flaws in the particular ceremony from the halakhic perspective and nullifying it retrospectively.

Such ploys demonstrate the problematic nature of the Orthodox marriage ceremony, which turns out to be a stumbling block for the Jewish woman. This is a terrible reality, in the author’s opinion, because it leads to the conclusion that "the more people refrain from behaving in accordance with Halakha, the better off they will be and the less they will suffer." When Shifman moves on to various suggestions for changing nuptial arrangements for couples, he tries to take into account not only the suffering of secular Jews who are subjected to religious laws in which they have no interest, but also the pain of men and women who are religiously observant and are subjected to a rabbinical law in which they are interested, but which is also characterized by a cruel and insulting lack of justice.

The Possible Solutions

He brings up various possibilities for altering the existing situation, each with its own inherent problems. In addition to the most meager of the possibilities, which would in general permit marriages only between two people who are not presently allowed to marry each other under Halakha – Shifman examines the possibility of allowing civil marriage alongside marriage as per religious law, so that each couple would be able to decide in which manner, via which establishment, they want to seal their marital covenant. The disadvantage would be open competition between these two establishments, which is liable to lead to alienation on the part of the religious public. Moreover, this approach would exacerbate the problem of agunot and women whose receipt of a get is being delayed, since religiously observant couples who marry under the auspices of the rabbinate would be subject to Halakha and thus not be able to seek help from the civil court.

Another possibility Shifman mentions, which prevails in some European countries, is a uniform civil law for everyone. In this case the state is perceived as responsible for proper civic order and marriage by means of state authorities is the only valid marriage. Citizens who are interested in marrying in a special ceremony are respected and are married by, for example, their rabbi, minister, spiritual leader etc. In a situation like this, ostensibly there is no competition between civil and religious law, and divorce is also egalitarian because even religious women are in general protected by the state.

The Malicious Combination of Halakha and Bureaucracy

If a woman who has been married in a Halakhic ceremony gets divorced only via a civil procedure and then remarries – her children from her latest marriage become mamzerim (or, bastards; in Halakha, that is what a child is called who is born to a woman who is still married ac cording to religious law, and fathered by another man who is not her husband ). This possibility might precipitate the usual threat by Orthodox Jewry to construct lists (or "family trees" ) of names, in order to ensure that all those who marry by civil law and their descendants would be prohibited from marrying anyone who is religiously observant.

However, Shifman notes that even today millions of nonreligious Jews in the United States, for example, choose to marry according to civil law and, of course, also divorce that way, and no one is talking about shunning all American Jews – i.e., not marrying them. In the author’s opinion, this problem, like others, requires "broad emendation of regulations in Halakha that will provide a universal and principled solution." And once again he criticizes the lack of interest on the part of today’s halakhic arbiters in investigating thoroughly and eventually changing what needs to be changed in traditional Jewish law.

The matter of bastardy demonstrates a problem unique to our times, which has not been accorded a solution by that law. In the past, a Jew suspected of bastardy, or an aguna or a woman whose bill of divorcement is being delayed, could possibly, in their distress, move to another Jewish community where nobody knew them and build a new life. But our era, in which when everything is registered, documented and computerized, does not allow for reasonable doubt as to an individual’s identity, doubt that in other periods sufficed to qualify a person for marriage (from "a family that has been accepted … is accepted," Tractate Kiddushin 70-A ).

Rabbi Joseph di Trani (1538-1639 ), known as the Maharit, also ruled to the effect that, "Anyone who knows of a flaw [vis-a-vis] someone’s marital eligability is not permitted to reveal it, but will leave it as if it were kosher." This points to the malicious combination of Halakha and bureaucracy that is unique to the modern era.

Nor does Shifman spare criticism when it comes to secular Israeli Jews who seek to institutionalize civil marriage. His treatment of court rulings that equate single-sex couple relationships to marriage is fascinating, and dwells on the question of the secular insistence on using the term "marriage," which he says expresses a definite religious and traditional institution, while attempting to foment a radical change – via the courts – in its original meaning.

Morality, Religious and Natural

Finally, Shifman examines local rulings that have led to equating the rights of common-law partners to those of married people. He discusses in detail three rulings by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak, who, in a sophisticated way helped to wage a quiet revolution with respect to personal status in Israeli law. Thanks to his efforts, the court recognized and legitimized marriages undertaken by Israeli citizens abroad – initially with respect to couples who in any case could have married in the country, and subsequently with respect to couples who could not have married here legally (one case involved a Jewish man who married a Christian woman ) – and finally marriages involving single-sex couples. In this way marriage abroad finally became the semi-official (if expensive ) way of entering into a civil marriage in Israel.

The first part of Shifman’s book deals with an artificial distinction between Halakha and morality, based on the idea that God’s commandments should be the sole basis for understanding what is good and what is evil, and any consideration external to Halakha constitutes a surrender to the liberal fashions of our times. The clinging to a specific religious precept, even if it may be illogical or in direct contradiction to one’s conscience, is considered by the believer to be a courageous effort to abide by the word of God and creates the desired experience of "authenticity." But Shifman shows that such a perception itself quite a new phenomenon and its primary framer in Israel was none other than the late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (and in the United States, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik ). He reminds readers that without an independent sense of morality, which is not connected to Halakha per se, lofty concepts of the sages like lifnim meshurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law ), derekh eretz (common courtesy ) and darkei shalom ([toward] a peaceful way ) become meaningless.

The same holds for the concept of naval bereshut hatorah (roughly, "a Torah pedant but a scoundrel" ), attributed to Nachmanides in the 13th century, and comments by Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Judah Berlin (1817-1893 ) condemning "righteous men and hasids" who are not "honest in the ways of the world." The halakhic tradition itself is full of examples of the influence of natural morality on the law.

Shifman criticizes Leibowitz’s approach, which aims to protect the primacy of Halakha by disengaging its precepts from the daily, transient world, that also disconnects it from reason and the heart. According to Shifman, this approach has trickled down, in fact, into the ranks of Gush Emunim (the religious movement for settlement in the territories ), Leibowitz’s major ideological rivals: Shifman quotes remarks by settler Rabbi Shlomo Aviner that purport to be based on the views of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935 ), but are really very similar to those of Leibowitz. In fact, it was Kook who said fear of heaven that ignores natural morality "is no longer pure fear of heaven."

Shifman’s criticism is also rooted in principle since it holds that "the existing richness of a plethora of sources and opinions in Halakha sharpens even further the conclusion that it is impossible to imagine a ruling in which the arbiter discounts the personal element – that is, a ruling that is not affected by the arbiter’s own value judgment."

In other words, there is no rabbinical law that is not born out of a certain moral position. From within this insight Shifman attacks the imperviousness of many rabbis toward women who are unable to receive a get, people who are deemed bastards and other individuals whose "credentials" as Jews are in question. He accuses such authorities of doing nothing, and writes: "A claim that a rabbinical sage is unable to be of help because it is not within his reach is very often a political decision in disguise that allows him to avoid dealing with the difficult questions of values underlying that decision."

Shifman’s book is a sharp indictment of the dissembling sanctimony of the Orthodox rabbis of our day and the fact that they cling to so-called Halakha as an excuse for standing still and stagnating. It’s not that they can’t do anything, they simply don’t want to. It’s not a matter of impotence, but rather a values-based stance. In a reality in which many couples shun the offices of the rabbinate, Shifman’s book is timely. His treatment of issues in family law in Israel is learned and profound, and his criticism of the situation of rabbinical rulings in our day, criticism that comes from within the world of Torah and Halakha, is sharp and precise. The associates of the new chief rabbi who will be selected in a few months’ time would do well to bring Shifman’s book as a gift on the occasion of his appointment.

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Published in Haaretz on 29.3.13

Crippling God’s Plan – Gush Emunim and Its Aftermath

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and then Minister of Agriculture Ariel Sharon placing the cornerstone for the Elon Moreh settlment, late seventiesIn Christian theology the days of the messiah often involve great upheavals and calamities, giving birth to the Messiah through great pain and suffering. That’s the reason “apocalypse” has come to mean not vision, as it does in Greek, but catastrophe. Ironically, this grand messianic scheme has played out in actual 20th century Jewish history, as two major messianic movements erupted out of the post-holocaust Jewish world, movements that in many ways are coloring significant aspects of it to this very day.

These movements, Chabad and Gush Emunim, exemplify two different genres of messianism. While the former is of centered around the charismatic figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the latter is a headless creature, conceived from the richly optimistic teachings of Rav Kook, and moving forward on the high octane motivational energy of modern nationalism.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865–1935) was an extremely creative mystic and thinker. Based on a Hegelian view of history wed to a panentheistic vision of God, Kook interpreted the braking away of significant numbers of Jews from their religious tradition, followed by their adopting of Zionism and their efforts to found a Jewish state, as an indispensable and foreordained stage in the path to Jewish redemption. Since Geula must involve the rebuilding of the Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land, and since the orthodoxly observant are reluctant to leave the Diaspora, God has mandated the “uppity bound-breakers” (his words) to do the dirty – but momentously paramount – work.

Rav Kook the elder did not live to see the State of Israel being founded, but his son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, was blessed to witness it. Yet Kook junior wept tears of sorrow when the United Nations proclaimed the Jewish people’s right to an independent state, because the same UN decision also stated that the land would be divided between the Jews and the Palestinians. In his eyes, the biblical Promised Land had to be forever undivided. What’s more, because in Zvi Yehuda’s eyes the state itself was holy (indeed, he considered it to be “the Seat of the Divine on Earth”), the actual military and political control of more and more of its promised territories were the very steps on which the messiah ascends (or is it descends?) toward final redemption.

With this in mind, we can understand why after the Six-Day war, Judea and Samaria’s coming under Israely control was construed by Zvi Yehuda and his followers to be a clear signal from the Heavenly Hand that the setback in the redemptive plan was over. With Israel finally broadening its borders it seemed that the messianic momentum was shifting gear, and that Salvation was ours for the taking. “There is not an End clearer then this!” proclaimed Kook Jr., and his followers announced that “The Third Redemption [after the exodus for Egypt and the return from Babilon in Ezra’s days] is without a stop!”.

In Kookist circles, then, it was a given that Geula has clearly begun, and that it was most surly irreversible. That did not mean, however, that we are to sit idly by and let God do all the work. In fact, it is after the Six-Day war, and in greater effort still after the Yom-Kippur war, that the first settlements were founded on the other side of what were the ’48 Israeli borders. That is the time when Gush-Emunim was born, then a young and spirited messianic-but-pragmatic movement, organized and peopled by Zvi Yehuda’s followers, but supported by many secular Israelis and quietly encouraged by elements from within the government.

Gush-Emunim started populating the hills and the occupied cities (such as Hebron) of the West Bank, sometimes by state permission and sometimes using trickery and lies.* Not less of import, The Gush’s messianic ideology occupied the hearts and souls of leading figures, and large numbers, of the Zionist-Religious public, imbuing it with renewed pride and the exhilarating feeling that its members were finally moving to the head of the Zionist enterprise. Not many years passed, however, before the first crisis of faith erupted.

A messianic vision’s weakness lies in the very thing that allows it to generate so much hope: its unabashed and uncompromising confidence. With the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979 the vision of an ever advancing redemptive plan was shattered, as the Sinai desert was promised to be handed over to Egypt. Instead of gaining more and more of the Promised Land, the state of Israel was now breaking parts of it away. Note also the theological sprain the kooknics now found themselves in: it was the same Israel which they believed to be holy that is in fact crippling God’s plan.

The withdrawal from Sinai, followed later by the handing over of the Palestinian cities after the Oslo accords, the retreat from south Lebanon and, most devastatingly, the razing of the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip have become almost an insurmountable challenge to the kookist messianic worldview. Its adherents today are experiencing a major crisis of faith, and their response to it divides them into a number of distinct groups.

Some, like Rabbi Shmuel Tal, have given up all hope for the state of Israel, no longer see it as divinely ordained, and have for all intents and purposes joined the Haredi world (allowing them to shift the center of their religious life from Zionism to Halakha). Some, led by the prominent Rav Tao, have delayed redemption indefinitely, and while still sure it’s on its way, have transferred progress toward it to the dimension hidden from the unlearned eye. At present they concentrate their efforts on strengthening Halakhic observance and education, while waiting for the masses to embrace their tradition.

Others, like the Jewish Underground of the early ‘80s or the Bat Ayin Underground from 2002, have turned to terrorism, in an attempt to force an apocalyptic event (or simply an all-out war) that will force the state to conquer its forsaken lands. And some, led by the post-Zionist and deeply Kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, aim to overthrow the secular government in a revolution of consciousness that will reconnect every Jew to his innermost soul. Most Religious-Zionists, however, are simply living their bourgeois life, hoping for the best, somewhat less convinced of the state’s divine status, and ever more wary of sweet-talking prophets bringing tidings of The End.

* For one of many examples, see חגי סגל [Chaggai Segal], אחים יקרים [beloved Brothers], page 237. Rabbi ehoshua Zuckerman says that “while settling the Shomron we did some illegal things.” On the same page, Ze’ev Hever, one of the leading figures among the settlers, says: “The dry law in itself is not holy to us, is not holy to any of the people sitting here.”

A shorter version of the Article, including the statistics box, was published in the December 2012 of Sh’ma, pp. 11-12.

Calderon’s Speech and the Meaning of Secularization

The two weeks that have passed since Knesset Member Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid) gave her maiden speech from the Knesset dais may just be sufficient time to assess its cultural impact – which is indeed significant. The speech, which was viewed on Youtube alone by nearly two hundred thousand people, famously included a Talmudic story which Calderon used to interpret current events, and also praise for the discipline of studying the Talmud, which Calderon claims has changed her life. Reactions to the Talmudic speech tended to two extremes: Some were most receptive to the inclusion of religious and traditional elements, and some were repulsed. Those repulsed also came in two flavors – ultra-orthodox speakers from the right, who viewed Calderon’s actions as an expropriation and a secularization of that which should remain sanctified, and secular-atheists from the left, who saw the speech as an expropriation of the secular legislature for the sake of a religious sermon.

In this sense, Calderon’s speech is an excellent case study in the boundaries of religious discourse in the Israeli public sphere. Having been delivered from the Knesset dais it is perforce representative. Like a Shiatsu artist applying precise touch to the pressure points of the body politic, the result of this touch are groans and growls, and each limb has its own distress. Thus while Ofri Ilani of the well known blog “Land of the Emorite” finds (Heb) proof in the speech that “Yesh Atid” is a party of evangelists, and Uri Misgav sees it as yet another manifestation of the secular public’s “routine bowing of the knee” before Religious Zionism, the editorial board of ultra-orthodox website “Kikar Hashabat” fears that it represents “a new enlightenment” and “an existential threat” to the Haredi public, and Rabbi Eliyahu Zeyni is most accurate in seeing Calderon’s speech as a secularization of the Talmud, and as a move intended to put an end to the hegemony of the “strident” orthodoxy.

Ruth Calderon on the Knesset dies

In order to explain why the religious sensitivity of the observant speakers correctly identified that which the short secular fuse on the free side failed to recognize, we must discuss the essence of secularization. It is well known that one of the central characteristics of the modern age is the secularization process, part of which is the separation of Church and State. Secularization means the transfer of power and authority from religious sources to secular ones. We all live in a world in which the monopoly on knowledge, political authority and even moral authority are no longer in the hands of religious entities. Authority over these important fields of the human condition have been shifted to science, to the nation-state, and to the individual conscience, among others.

This process was conceived during the Protestant Reformation, and it reached its Bar Mitzvah, so to speak, with the enlightenment, at the end of the 18th century. In the 19th century, while the process was in its cock-sure adolescence, some European intellectuals erred in thinking that what they were experiencing was part of a linear, deterministic process, at the end of which all of humanity will divest itself – privately as well as publicly – of the burden of religious faith. This was to bring about the certain end of religion, and the death and burial of God without so much as a Kadish. Thus was born the confusing conflation of secularization and atheism, that is to say the belief that stripping religion of public power necessarily means obliterating it as a private human element.

Today, as secularization stands before us as a ripe adult, we can easily see that this formulation is not correct. In the 1970’s it was already obvious that the rumors of the death of religion were somewhat premature. The secularization process is indeed underway at a brisk pace, but secularization does not in fact mean atheization, and religion is not obliterated. Instead, as a flexible and sophisticated organism, it adjusts to the new conditions. Proper understanding of the process of secularization was reinforced in the early 21st century, when terror acts by fundamentalist Muslim groups on the one hand emphasized that modern society is not at liberty to dismiss religion, and concurrently important and disparate western thinkers (Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas) began to question the wisdom of ignoring traditional culture troves while attempting to create a healthy society.

To return to Calderon’s speech, it seems that some of the secular watchers on the wall are still interpreting traditional-religious words as “religion” in its all-encompassing and authoritarian sense. On the other hand, it is obvious to the religious-traditional side that “religion” (in its old sense) is a matter of authority, obedience and commitment. Therefore they understood full-well that Calderon’s free use of those words is not intended to force them on the Knesset and make it “religious” but, quite to the contrary, to remove those words from their religious context and render them into a tool in the hands of the secular Knesset.

Who’s authority?

The error of Calderon’s detractor is therefore ironic: Her speech serves, first and foremost, those who wish to separate Church and State. That is to say, in the Israeli case, between Jewish Orthodoxy and the State of Israel. It stems from a failure to distinguish religious words from religious discourse. The words Calderon used were indeed religious, but the discourse in which she spoke was secular. Calderon translated the Talmud into a civic-political language. She did not come in the name of Halakha, but in her own name and that of her own values, while maintaining the authority over the text’s meaning. Thus she not only secularized the Talmud, but also retook a cultural treasure that for too long has lain in the rhetorical arsenal of one side only. This did also not go unnoticed by her religious detractors. This also worries them quite a bit.

Once again, it is important to note: Secularization of the Talmud does not mean that there is no religious link between Calderon and the text. There may very well be (Calderon described her own family in that speech as “religious”, using the non-Hebrew word to imply a spiritual intensity). Secularization, as I have mentioned above, means withdrawing authority over the religious text (as well as the religious sentiment, religious history, religious aspirations and so on) from a hierarchical religious establishment to the life and free choice of the individual. One can, once again, wonder why such a shift is not warmly welcomed by members of the secular left.

Civilization Without Culture

And perhaps it is not that perplexing. Is it possible that what bothers the detractors of Calderon’s speech is that they do actually deeply understand the thrust of her act, meaning that they understand that Calderon signifies a renewed interest among a rather large part of the public in what is known as “The Jewish Book-Case”? Is it possible that they believe that Israeli culture must be built solely from humanist-liberal building blocks devoid of all long-time cultural heritage (a heritage which has contributed greatly to the emergence of humanism and liberalism)?

It is odd, for in the circles of those condemning Calderon’s use of religion we can find men and women who are (justly) horrified by the actions of China in Tibet, to wit, the destruction of Tibetan culture and its supplanting with the unique communo-capitalist amalgam of the current Chinese regime. That seems to them to be a disaster, yet they view erasing all Jewish culture and exchanging it for a liberal (and economically neo-liberal) public sphere devoid of any cultural or religious characteristics as a wise move. These are the same people who will (rightly) click their tongues upon visiting India and witnessing the hyper-globalization underway across the sub-continent, trampling its uniqueness along the way and turning t into another “free market”, whose pantheon is inhabited solely by shopping and profits. This they view as cultural devastation, but turning Israel into another McDonald’s franchise seems to them like a goal worth fighting for. These are the people who will (rightly) mourn the loss of the primitive Australian Aboriginal culture, the disintegration of the Native American nations, the wiping out of hunter-gatherer cultures in the Amazon. They will stridently insist on the right of each of these to maintain a distinct cultural identity and the preservation of their spiritual and intellectual treasures. But at the creation of a Jewish identity and preservation of this culture – which is, after all, quite ancient – they will evince distaste.

This is not only a strange case of discrimination, but also a blindness to the human and so simple need for a “home-grown” identity and culture (yes, the same need felt by the Aborigines – have not others the right to feel that way?). And this need is not only psychological, but also, mostly, social and communal. For without a traditional source of values we shall soon be left only with the instrumental utilitarianism of the free market. Without an ethical array that gives the things around us value, soon they will be left only with the price-tag. Yes, we have humanism and liberalism, and we are lucky to have them; truly; But unfortunately I don’t think that these alone provide a juicy enough ideological framework and a sufficiently coalesced identity to enable the existence of a thriving society in our times. Have you checked recently what happened to the dream of a secular-rational-liberal-universal society? Well, let me put it this way: There’s an app for that.

I have no patience for religious one-upmanship, and the notion that Judaism is some unique religion, higher or more true than other religions is despicable in my view. On the other hand, the notion that we should (or can) cast aside cultural treasures built over millennia is in my eyes no less despicable. Jewish tradition holds much wisdom, as well as much idiocy. Both its wisdom and its idiocy are voices I would like to hear, examine and make a decision regarding them. As long as there is no coercion, the enrichment of public discourse can only be a blessing.

The separation of Church and State must be fought for resolutely, and the struggle is beginning to bear fruit, but this struggle does not end with the erasure of any and all religious expressions from the public sphere. Should it end thus, the public sphere would remain poor and vapid, useful only as a portal to another branch of a global coffee chain, its kitchen staffed by labor migrants and its door guarded by a temp worker making minimum wage. Tradition’s voice must be another voice heard, another voice we can choose to follow. This is precisely why it would be disastrous for this voice to remain heard only from the mouths of rabbis, and doubly so from rabbis such as Ovadiah Yosef, Dov Lior or Shmuel Eliyahu. In her speech, Calderon has contributed to the creation of a new traditional-modern voice, a secular-feminine counterweight to those who until recently held the monopoly on the Talmud. Calderon has made a fine contribution to the breaking of the old molds, and surely did not imagine that she of all people would be pressured so quickly back into them.

First published on Avi Chai site, 27.2.13. Translated by Rechavia Berman

Kookism – Settler politics as God’s playing field

"Kookism: Shorshei Gush Emunim, Tarbut Hamitnahlim, Teologia Tzionit, Meshihiyut Be’zmanenu,” (Kookism: The Roots of Gush Emunim, Jewish Settlers’ Subculture, Zionist Theology, Contemporary Messianism) by Gideon Aran. Carmel Publishing House, 464 pages, NIS 119

“We have to take a good look at reality, with open eyes and the professional skill of responsible politicians − then we will discover the interior regularity that hides behind things.” There you have it, Kookism in a nutshell: politics as God’s playing field, political reality as the bearer of messianic tidings, the nonchalant presumption to understand the Almighty’s will, and the undoubting faith that our own ilk possesses the secret to deciphering the course of history.

The speaker, one of the leaders of Gush Emunim, goes on to clarify: “This regularity always and necessarily moves toward full redemption. You cannot make do with studying Gemara; you have to go out into the field. There, mainly there, religion will be revealed, the sanctity will be uncovered… Every footstep of ours, every swing of a hand, open and close electrical circuits that switch on lightbulbs in the upper worlds.”

Even these few words enfold the essence of Kookism: the absolute confidence in the approaching salvation, the sanctifying of the profane, and especially the hills of Judea and Samaria, the relocation of the center of religious life from studies to messianic activism, and the arrogance that turns every settler into a kabbalist mystic who mates sephirot (the kabbalistic emanations) and sets processes in motion in the upper worlds.

Gideon Aran brings these quotes straight from the field. Albeit this field no longer exists, since Aran galloped over the hills of Judea and Samaria together with the folks of Gush Emunim in the mid-1970s, and they have long ceased to be bald rocky hills in between docile Arab villages. The Gush Emunim settlement movement no longer exists either, although it had a much longer and more significant life than Aran anticipated. When he joined it as a young doctoral student in sociology, Aran saw before him a movement that was “exotic and charismatic” and a bit “moonstruck.” As someone wanting to specialize in the study of extremist cults, he expected to write about a small group, document the rise and fall of an anecdote. He did not know he was about to become a witness to the religious-social movement that would alter the face of Israel.

Aran shadowed the Gush Emunim people between 1975 and 1978. He joined them in their trips through the occupied territories, in their internal debates, observed their reactions to political and international developments, their formulations of Kookist theology, their joyous occasions, their tragedies, their demonstrations and their clandestine activity. The book before us is the fruit of Aran’s riveting research, which formed the basis for his doctoral dissertation. The readers are therefore exposed to Aran’s documentation and analysis from more than 30 years ago.

The decision to leave the material unchanged has advantages and disadvantages. Ostensibly, the book depicts a picture that has since faded away, a childish innocence, that, when we sobered up from it, we were no longer able to take seriously. On the other hand, that is precisely what makes this sort of primary documentation so important. Rarely is a scholar privy to the formative stages of a religious movement, certainly such a meaningful religious movement. Here stand before us the young and charismatic Hanan Porat, the fervent Moshe Levinger, Yoel Ben Nun when he was still a prominent leader of that public, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook in the very days he was formulating his political-religious thought.

The new scriptures

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda KookThe story of Gush Emunim, according to Aran, begins long before the Six-Day War, in the religious pioneer group Gahelet ‏(Hebrew acronym for Garin Halutzim Lomdei Torah − “cadre of Torah-learning pioneers”‏), in the early 1950s. There began to grow a religious awareness that seeks to subsume everyday reality, that wants to be in the most literal sense religious Zionism.

Two catalysts brought about the formation of this group, the first of which was the establishment of the State of Israel. We are dealing, then, with a messianic movement that arose not out of destruction, but rather out of redemption. The second catalyst was the disdainful and dismissive treatment religiously observant Jews were subject to in the early days of the state. It is hard today to grasp just how contemptible observant Jews seemed then in the eyes of the secular Jews, who huffed Zionism and puffed socialism. Contempt for the “Exilic” religion and derogatory epithets such as adukfistuk ‏(devout pistachio nut‏) created a sense of inferiority, without even the Haredi consolation born of closing themselves off from the rest of society.

Out of this experience arose the members of Gahelet, who tried to redefine the relationship between religion and state. Youngsters like Zephaniah Drori, Yaakov Filber, Zalman Melamed and Haim Druckman − some of the most important rabbis of religious Zionism in our day − enrolled as a group in the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem, at that time a marginal and lesser yeshiva. There they found the philosophical-religious foundation that would feed their nationalist ambitions.

That foundation was built, as we know, on the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook. These became the new scriptures, and their interpretation − the weaving of a messianic-Zionistic theological political tapestry. The sides of Rav Kook’s thinking that dealt with private religiosity and general philosophy were usually silenced. The preoccupation with the nation’s uniqueness and the world’s redemption was highlighted ‏(Kookism, therefore, is not really the doctrine of Rav Kook‏). The role of official explicator of Rav Kook went to his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who was then also head of the yeshiva. It was he who put Kookism into words and deeds, and gathered the new students around him like disciples around their admor ‏(a Hebrew acronym for “our master, our teacher, our rabbi”‏).

Aran devotes space to the “admorization” process of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In the eyes of Gush Emunim the latter became a restorer of faith, a Light unto the Nations ‏(Gush members recount that he instilled Torah in “gigantic negros and beautiful models”‏), a healer of the sick, a Torah prodigy, proficient in the world’s languages, knowledgeable in philosophy − and finally a prophet. The late Hanan Porat is quoted as having described Zvi Yehuda Kook’s house as “the center of the world. There is the source of the electric current that sets in motion the machine called Gush Emunim, through which Israel and all of humanity will be illuminated.” Kook’s best-known prophecy was pronounced three weeks before the Six-Day War. In a conversation with his students, he cried out that the people of Israel had forgotten the Land of the Patriarchs, namely the West Bank. A month later, that same land was already in Israel’s hands, and the people of Gush Emunim could set out to enlighten Israel and all of humanity.

Settling in Judea and Samaria became the national expression of Kookism. Before the 1967 war, the Gahalet people were busy ‏(aside from with their Torah studies‏) with a war against “missionaries” in Jerusalem: disrupting a concert performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Binyanei Ha’uma, vandalizing church property, and disparaging clergymen who happened to cross their path.

Rabbi Zvi Yehuda and Ariel Sharom placing the corner stome for the Elon Moreh settlmentLiberating the Land of the Patriarchs was perceived as a command by the minister of history to go out and make history − or, more precisely, to bring about the end of history by way of full redemption. The land was transformed into a holy vessel, and settlement into a ritual. In Kookism, Aran writes, there occurs “a kabbalization of Israeli nationalism, and in its wake a ritualization of political activism, which makes it possible to bring Zionism to its final conclusion, and at the same time also to disarm it of its practicality and absolve it of its responsibility, which are the basis of its historic revolutionism.” If Zionism turned Judaism from a theology into an ideology, then Kookism seeks to go one better and turn Zionism itself into a theology. The sanctity was to be found in the settlement operations.

From here on, pitching tents was a mitzvah. Kookism is set apart by its contention that salvation can arrive before the people of Israel has repented, and even without the Messiah. “Redemption of the land” takes on a new meaning, of redeeming reality in its entirety. Kookism also knows in advance and with certainty the course of events. Another dunam and another dunam mean getting ever closer to the End of Days, when the law will go out from Zion and all the nations will look to it.

Israel’s uniqueness ensures the success of Kookism, but the salvation ushered in by the Gush Emunim people does not pertain solely to Jews. Rabbi Levinger explains to Aran that “by making concessions to the Arabs and the Gentiles of the world, by stopping settlement and withdrawing from the territories, we cause our neighbors harm. Not only would their material situation not be improved, but there would occur a spiritual deterioration that would prevent them from understanding the supremacy of our people and acknowledging its sanctity. Thus, with our bare hands, we would block their redemption.” The Kookists know better than you what’s good for you, and they will impose that good on you whether you like it or not. They don’t do this for their own sake, but rather as loyal envoys of the Almighty; who serve as his vessels and obey his orders in silence and certainty.

From this we can also grasp the depth of the crisis that could occur if the people of Israel were to turn its back on them, if the State of Israel were to bid farewell to occupied territories, if the redemption process were to do the incredible and reverse direction.

Back to Hebrew salvation

Hanan Porat celebrating establishing the camp at Sebastia, 1975We find crisis not only at the end of Kookism. Aran’s innovation lies in analyzing the rise of Kookism precisely as a response to crisis. This is the crisis that stems from the dissonance inherent to the very existence of a successful secular State of Israel. Unlike Rabbi Z.Y. Kook, his successors could not see the divine sparks hidden, supposedly, in the hearts of the secular Jews and in the “inner” layer of their actions. A Jewish state that operates in a secular manner is a contradiction in their eyes, and so they set out to reform reality. “We stand before a national disaster of enormous proportions,” Aran quotes a Gush Emunim supporter as saying. “[The state is] a paradise of messianic realization − ‘Apocalypse Now’ − that makes Judaism redundant.”

The realization of the religious dream, the establishment of a Jewish state, endangers religion. The Kookists sought to restore Judaism to the center of Israeli life, and if necessary − by force. The faith-based tension reached its climax in the Six-Day War: Secular Israel won a glorious victory. The Temple Mount was in our hands, and the cafes in Tel Aviv were full of IDF generals basking in the sunlight. The Kookists interpreted the events as they saw fit and sought to explain their meaning to secular Israelis. The tension between the success of secularity ‏(with the Lord’s help, of course‏) and its unwillingness to draw the obvious conclusion ‏(and become religious‏) was too great. Tension creates movement. Crisis creates birth.

It is an accepted and clear principle in the field of religious studies: Faith-based dissonance generates a desire for harmonization, and that desire creates action. Belief and reality are like two bicycle wheels standing one beyond the other, without touching and without support on the side. Anyone who maintains such a structure in his psyche understands intuitively that if he wants it not to fall, he has to push and move forward. Gush Emunim took to the field as a movement that sought to wed faith to reality ‏(the problem being that the back wheel will of course never reach the front one‏). The terrible blow Israel suffered in the Yom Kippur War gave an additional push, and the Kookists channeled the messianic energy into settlement. Hanan Porat summed up the matter: “Gush Emunim is the yearning for the revelation of God in the world.”

In setting out to realize Judaism as a national religion, Kookism revived the ancient Hebrew notion of redemption: political salvation that finds expression in a sovereign kingdom. Kookism did not invent this ideal, but merely translated the biblical aspiration into a modern tongue and action, and added to it Hegelian dialectic and kabbalistic interpretation. It thereby set itself against the processes of Protestantization that world religions are undergoing in our era, in the course of which religion becomes the personal ‏(and psychological‏) business of the individual. The mystical spirituality of Rav Kook was forgotten, and Kookism was left with only a theocratic Jewish messianism, inflexible and destined to break.

Aran presents the reader with historical facts, a plot, and brilliant interpretation. His writing is creative and graceful, and reading the book is a pleasurable experience. It also has a few problems: The lack of an index is a serious oversight, and the lengthy explanations at the beginning about the formation of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century are superfluous. The passage of time is evident in the explanations pertaining to matters of kabbalah and mysticism. But as a whole the text is fascinating, and the book’s editor, Amit Shoham, did an admirable job in reducing the dense abundance typical of a doctoral dissertation into the earthly reality dictated by the constraints of publishing a book.

Aran’s research reveals to us how vivid and innovative Kookism was at its inception: sanctifying the profane, sanctifying the IDF, sanctifying nationalism, the blinding faith in the righteousness of its path, its contempt for passive religiosity, the theological interpretation − in real time − of every political occurrence. His study also reveals to us how great was its failure, how pale its decline. Today the most devout Kookists − Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Tau and the yeshivas under his leadership − have withdrawn from the public arena and severed themselves from Israeli society. Who better than Naftali Bennett, the high-tech ace from Ra’anana who became the new shepherd of religious Zionism, to herald the end of Kookism as a vibrant social movement. Thirty years after it was written as an introduction to a young movement’s worldview, Aran’s juicy text is now being published as its summation.

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Published in Haaretz, 5.4.13

How real is your pain, Rabbi David Stav?

Last Friday, Haaretz Magazine published a  short interview with Rabbi David Stav, entitled “The salesman of Judaism,” by Ayelett Shani. That interview was one of several which Stav has given recently − all as part of a public campaign aimed at helping him get elected as Israel’s next Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Perhaps this is an appropriate way for a person who has a good chance of becoming the next chief rabbi to introduce himself to his flock: the men and women over whose marital lives ‏(and, no less important, divorces‏) he will soon preside.

The interviews have been quite informative about the rabbi’s religious character. To try to get a handle on him, I would like to talk about three key words that he uses in particular.

Halakha: On two occasions in the interview, Stav asserts his unequivocal loyalty to traditional Jewish law. He said, “In regard to halakha, I do not intend to compromise in any way,” in connection with his opposition to civil marriage. In reply to a question about the price he would be prepared to pay to draw secular people closer to the Rabbinate, he stated, “I will not deviate from the halakha as it was accepted by our forefathers − neither to the right nor to the left.”

Surely it would be difficult to come out with a clearer formulation than this.

However, the problem does not lie in the formulation. The problem is that halakha is completely unconnected to the issue of civil marriage. After all, no one is asking the rabbi to exceed the boundaries of halakha as he understands it. No one is asking him to annul religious marriages for whoever wants them. What is being asked about is allowing registration of civil marriage for those who do not want a religious ceremony. All that is being asked of him is not to force those boundaries on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens.

Does the Orthodox halakha prohibit the registration of a spousal relationship through the state’s civil authorities, or even through a private contract rather than via the Chief Rabbinate? Of course not. Halakha does not even recognize the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, because the ancient arbiters could not conceive of a bureaucratic mechanism of rabbis being foisted upon the public under the aegis of the bureaucratic power of a modern state. Indeed, there are Orthodox rabbis who absolutely believe that civil marriage should be allowed. None of them, of course, thinks he is in violation of halakha.

In our time, halakha is often used as a code word whose meaning for secular people is “I cannot,” whereas its real interpretation, for the religious speaker of the word, is “I don’t want to.” There is no halakhic obstacle to civil marriage. The obstacle lies solely in the worldview of Stav, which, let it be said to his credit, he declares openly.

In another interview ‏(to this writer‏), Stav explained that he is fearful of a scenario in which over a million “people who require proof of their Judaism” ‏(in his words‏) will not be obliged to pass through the gates of the Rabbinate and prove their Judaism in order to marry. That whole huge mass of people will wander freely through the country with their ethnic status unclear, at least as far as Stav is concerned. That is a legitimate issue in itself, but it has no direct connection to halakha.

Pain: Twice in the interview, Stav admits that he is pained. When Ayelett Shani asks him about the habit of some secular brides to lie about the date of their menstrual cycle, so that the Rabbinate clerks will not force them to change their wedding date ‏(so as to prevent a wedding from taking place during niddah, when the bride has her period, which to secular women makes no difference and is permitted halakhically‏), Stav replies that he is “deeply pained by this.” When Shani asks him about the fact that homosexuals cannot marry in Israel, he replies that he “will be hurting together with [them].”

Sensitivity is a fine quality, and sensitivity to the pain of others is noble. Just as he will feel the pain of the lies told by secular brides and the pain of the homosexuals who cannot marry, Stav will also feel the pain of the thousands of agunot ‏(women who have been abandoned by their husbands or whose husbands will not grant them a divorce‏), who are unable to remarry or have children. He will also feel the pain of tens of thousands of secular and religiously observant couples who want a wedding ceremony that is more egalitarian. He will have to reject all of these people, though he will definitely share their pain and hurt.

I don’t think there is any reason to be worried about Rabbi Stav. His pain is not overly deep. It is a pain that floats lightly over a great deal of personal satisfaction and gratification. This stems from the fact that Stav, from his point of view, has defended halakha and the unity of the nation. He has affirmed his piety, even if at the expense of others. He did not deviate from what God charged him to do, neither to the right nor to the left. His ticket to paradise wasn’t even wrinkled.

Of course, if the Rabbinate did not force Israel’s Jewish citizens to marry through it, the pain of the secular brides and the pain of homosexuals would be prevented, and possibly also the pain of the agunot and the pain of those who want a different marriage ceremony. But that would be contrary to Stav’s outlook. He is not ready for that. What is he ready for? He is ready to be sympathetic.

Love: “Just as I cannot fight against the Lord, who allowed someone to be killed in an accident, I also cannot help in the halakhic sense. The only thing I can do is to love,” Stav says. He apparently sees halakha as a fateful decree − like an accident. Some would say that, as a rabbi, his task is actually to find ways to ease people’s halakhic distress.However, Stav appears to belong to a school of thought which holds that halakha is a kind of unavoidable situation that people get into, an automatic mechanism that “hurts” and grieves us, for which we need consolation after experiencing it, along the lines of: “Doctor, what’s the problem?” “Sorry, but you have halakha.” Still, Stav is ready to love those who have this problem. It hurts him as much as it hurts them.

Halakha can be an ethical and religious structure in the framework of which the individual enters into a covenant with God and worships him. But I believe it becomes a problem the moment it is forced on the individual. It also loses all religious value in that case. This is exactly the difference between accepting the burden of the precepts and religious coercion. Love in this case will not override the moral wrong and the religious vacuity it reflects.

Beyond this, we need to ask whether a situation in which the Jewish religion or the Jewish people can survive only if the halakha forces itself on Israel’s Jewish citizens is a reasonable state of affairs, or is theologically or ethically proper.

If the Rabbinate were not an institution which is forced on all of Israel’s Jewish citizens, there would be no need to offer consolation to anyone. Who knows? Maybe if the Rabbinate does not receive so much power from civil law, halakhic problems will be more quickly resolved. For in that case, the rabbis, like rabbis in Jewish communities throughout the generations that preceded Israel’s establishment, will have to adapt themselves to the demands of the public. But in the meantime, as a powerful monopoly, the Rabbinate has no interest in making things more difficult for itself. Its interest lies in making things difficult for the public.

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This piece was originally published in Hebrew at the current affairs, culture and society online magazine http://www.compress.co.il, edited by Aviad Kleinberg. It was later published in Haaretz, 28.2.13.


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