Friday June 2, 2023 – י״ג סִיוָן תשפ”ג
“It’s simple,” exclaimed Rabbi Prof. Larry Hoffman, “Don’t be a zealot.” It was a response to a question posedabout believers and the fine line between being fervent, vehement, and adamant in one’s belief and practice on the one hand and not being an extremist, a radical, or even a Zealot on the other.
This four-word admonition carries wisdom beyond its effect. “Oh gee, why didn’t I think about that earlier?” Or, invoking the Talmudic less-than-subtle ruling “פשיטא”, loosely translated as “duh?”.
“Don’t be a Zealot” could not be more relevant for our times. Don’t be an extremist and don’t extricate yourself from the community. Rather, build consensus and listen to the opinions and thoughts of others, Rabbi Hoffman taught us. The commandment not to be a Zealot does not mean not having conviction, nor does it mean not holding steadfast to one’s ideology and worldview.
This week the simple command “Don’t be a Zealot” could not have come in a timelier fashion. In the next few days, we in North America will receive an influx of Israeli government officials. Sixteen Ministers and MKs will flood the City of New York (some visiting other cities) to join the marchers in the annual Israel Parade up 5th Avenue and to attend conferences and meetings with the leadership of American Jewish organizations. The delegation is comprised of members of both the Coalition and the Opposition and includes inflammatory members, such as MK Simcha Rothman and others from the Religious Zionist Party, advancing problematic policies that threaten Israeli democracy affecting Jews worldwide.
There are massive protests planned not to let this delegation’s visit go by quietly. This is seen as a moment of solidarity with Israel.
Our message to the members of the Coalition is “Don’t be a Zealot.” Listen to the dissenters and the critics of your plan. Don’t shove it down the throats of the people. Yes, you have the majority in the Knesset now and you may be able to pass a number of laws, but your zeal is going to be your downfall if you are unwilling to compromise and allow a natural process of collaborative government to occur.
The timeliness of ‘Don’t be a Zealot’ rings true for four significant moments that took place this week.
- Gett Mehadrin
After three years of mediation, the Israel Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism won an important case and took a big step against racism in the Jewish State. Arab taxi drivers sued the Israeli cab-hailing app Gett for discrimination. Gett will now stop operating its Jerusalem-based “Mehadrin” option that offered a taxi that is guaranteed not to be driven on Shabbat. However, this was just an excuse to create a cab service to screen out Arab drivers, as Arab drivers are under no obligation to abstain from work on Shabbat, and driving on Saturdays offers them an important source of income.
IRAC Director Orly Erez Likhovsky wrote:
“We have been fighting those who abuse Judaism to promote racism for many years, but this victory is especially timely. It both addresses those who were hurt by this practice and aligns with our fight to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic, the fight we have been waging since the current government was sworn in five months ago.”
Gett will also compensate its Arab drivers in the city in a total amount of six million shekels ($1.6 million).
The message to Gett and its “Mehadrin”users:
Don’t be a Zealot.
Homesh is a Settlement in Northern Samaria that was evacuated as part of the disengagement plan of 2005. Attempts to rebuild it have been ongoing since 2007. This week, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gave the green light to rebuild the Yeshiva there, acquiescing to the ultra-Nationalist agenda to reverse the 2005 disengagement. “But,” as Anshel Pfeffer writes, “Homesh is not just another illegal outpost. The move is an attempt by the settlers and their supporters to set back the clock to before August 23, 2005, when the last of the youngsters holding out in Homesh were grappled onto the evacuation buses.” Homesh showed that the Government will not stand up to the Zealots and will allow for action which is geo-politically detrimental.
MK Rabbi Gilad Kariv posted that “the construction of the building in Homesh foreshadows what is to come. Contempt for the law. Contempt for the IDF and its commanders. Contempt for Israel’s international commitments. Contempt for the rights of the Palestinian farmers who cannot cultivate their land.”
In short, don’t be a Zealot.
3. The Death of the Great Rabbi
The passing of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein on Tuesday shook the Haredi world. He was the last of a series of great halakhic authorities and many considered him to be the last of a generation of rabbinic leadership with the esteemed title “Maran” – reserved for rabbis whose authority was accepted by the entire Lithuanian Haredi establishment (over 200 rabbis). Rav Edelstein died one month after his 100th birthday leaving a vacuum of leadership in the Haredi world. Generally speaking, the Lithuanian Haredi leadership opposes any form of secular studies or integrating a core curriculum into its institutions, IDF draft, or other forms of integration into Israeli society. It also believes in taking a practical approach to politics as opposed to ideological rhetoric – it does not attempt to win opponents over to its side, but rather it negotiates with all parties in the Knesset to maintain its autonomous status and receive sufficient resources for its education systems and yeshivot.
The main Ashkenazi Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, is a joint party between two rival factions – Degel HaTorah, the Lithuanian Party, and Agudat Yisrael, the Hassidic Party.
Degel Hatorah formed as an independent political movement in 1989, but since 1992 has joined with the Hassidic politicians to maximize political power and avoid the risk of failing to reach the electoral threshold. This union nearly dissolved prior to the last election after one of the largest Hassidic groups – Belz – agreed to enter an Education Ministry program that would supply its schools with funding in exchange for introducing core secular studies with the ministry’s oversight.
Rabbi Edelstein opposed the plan and threatened that if Agudat Yisrael went along with it, the two parties would run separately in the elections. Had this happened, the risk was high that neither party would pass the electoral threshold, thereby costing the Haredi sector precious political power and perhaps even costing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the ability to form his coalition.
Netanyahu managed to convince the parties to run together after promising Agudat Yisrael that he would supply the necessary funding without the demand for core secular studies. The narrowly averted political schism highlighted ideological differences between the two parties, and now with the passing of Rav Edelstein, the instability becomes a serious issue once again.
Rabbi Edelstein was respected as a supreme spiritual leader. With his demise, the Hasidic party may view itself as released from Degel Hatorah’s grip, increasing its independence, which could threaten the alliance between the two Ashkenazi Haredi factions.
In the Haredi world, leadership passes to one who generally exhibits strictness and severity in its rulings. This vacuum likely will be filled with halakhically Zealous leaders seeking to increase the insularity and stringency of Israeli Haredi life, further cutting itself off from the mainstream.
If I could tell the Haredi community one thing (not that they’re listening to me) it would be: Don’t be a Zealot.
- Jerusalem Pride
“These people are mean and they are vicious,” exclaims Rabbi Alona Nir Keren of Kehilat Mevasseret Tzion in conversation with Haaretz podcast host Allison Kaplan Sommer. “They’re using fascist metaphors and ideas and spreading hate. And this person [National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir] is supposed to be in charge of my safety while I’m marching in this parade?” Tensions were high ahead of yesterday’s Jerusalem pride parade, as the current coalition and specifically the leaders of the Religious Zionist party (who had previously brought a donkey to the parade to connect homosexuality with bestiality), are now in positions of power. Most marching in Jerusalem vividly remembers the unthinkable tragic murder of 16-year-old Shira Banki in 2015 at the hands of the Zealous murderer Yishai Schleisel.
Don’t be a Zealot. Don’t enable a situation in which hatred is coddled and nurtured to a place where it boils over into violence.
And ‘Don’t Be a Zealot’ applies to the protesters also. Don’t be a Zealot in only disrupting. Know when to listen and when to quietly display dissent. Know when to speak softly and when to yell. Know when to cancel and know when to call in.
Don’t be a Zealot.
Use reason, wisdom, and eloquence. Be clever and passionate, thoughtful and committed. Know what you believe and hold to your convictions, but please, whatever you do, don’t be a Zealot.