Friday August 25, 2023 – ח׳ אֱלוּל תשפ”ג
וְכׇל־בָּנַיִךְ לִמּוּדֵי יְהֹוָה וְרַב שְׁלוֹם בָּנָיִךְ׃ (ישעיהו נד:יג)
And all your children shall be disciples of God,
And great shall be the happiness of your children; (Isaiah 54:13 – Haftarah Shabbat Ki Teitze)
אָמַר רִבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר רִבִּי חֲנִינָא: תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים מַרְבִּים שָׁלום בָּעולָם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: “וְכָל בָּנַיִךְ לִמּוּדֵי ה’ וְרַב שְׁלום בָּנָיִךְ”. אַל תִּקְרֵי “בָנַיִךְ” אֶלָּא “בונָיִךְ” (ברכות ס”ד ע”א)
“Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Ḥanina said: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it is said: ’And all your children [banayikh] shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children’ (Isaiah 54:13). Do not read your children [banayikh], but your builders [bonayikh]. Torah scholars are those who build peace for their generation.” (BT Brakhot 64a)
The story of the current crisis in Israel is one of overlapping political and ideological agendas. Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman are pushing an ideological judicial overhaul while Ministers Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich are advancing an agenda of settlement expansion leading to de jure annexation while also diminishing the status of Israel’s Arab citizens to that of their Palestinian brethren, who live under Israeli military control as subjects with no rights.
But the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) agenda might well be the one that will most immediately tear Israeli society apart. Two issues sit at the top of the Haredi agenda: Enshrining exemption from military service of 170,000 Yeshiva students and gender segregation. While these issues are neither new nor surprising, they are boiling as the highly contested central issues at the core of Israel’s societal rift.
Could the coalition fall over the Haredi draft issue?
When David Ben Gurion acquiesced to the then-recognized leader of the ultra-Orthodox community, Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz (1873-1953), aka the Hazon Ish, by giving exemptions to approximately 400 Yeshiva students from military service, he did not anticipate the far-reaching consequences of his decision. Ben Gurion was right about most things, but this one he got dead wrong. With the success of the Zionist Movement in the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben Gurion saw no reason for Jews to continue to live a Haredi lifestyle. He assumed that they would naturally assimilate into Israeli society. In his mind, he figured that because the Jewish people gained sovereignty in a state of our own for the first time in 2000 years it was no longer necessary to be overly concerned about antisemitism, nor to live an isolationist and insular existence as a people, nor to rely on our religious institutions, nor to maintain European-style dress in the hot Mediterranean climate, nor to prioritize full-time Torah study over entering the workforce.
However, the Haredi community had something else entirely in mind. While the organized Haredi community – Agudat Yisrael and other Hassidic courts – maintained a public policy of halakhically sanctioned anti-Zionism, they regarded the establishment of the state as an opportunity to rebuild the world of Torah learning which had been largely decimated in the Holocaust. Their communities began to grow exponentially under the radar until it became clear that they had political power and agency. As purely sectoral parties, they joined whichever coalition would provide them with the necessary budgets and allocations to maintain their Yeshivot, synagogues, and communal institutions, relying on the State to continue granting military exemption to their students and subsidizing private educational systems all the while supporting their large families. They operated as an oppressed minority fighting and advocating for their position and advancement while maintaining strict boundaries and avoiding contact with secular society as much as possible (thus, necessitating exemptions from army service). The Haredi goal was to rebuild and grow the world of Torah learning. Kollel study (full-time Torah learning for married men) became a unique facet of Israeli Haredi life despite the fact that Haredim from Brooklyn to Antwerp to Melbourne all find ways of learning while also working for a living.
The exemption bill being currently debated may be too large a pill for even the current coalition to swallow. As Akiva Novik explained, “Not because it dramatically changes the status quo. It doesn’t. Israel already exempts anyone born ultra-Orthodox who doesn’t want to do military service. It also subsidizes Torah study to an extent that had never before been seen in Jewish history. When United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Gafni proposed that ‘half of the people study Torah and half serve in the army,’ from his standpoint, he was reflecting the existing situation. This is not new. But it has morphed into a mutated version of religio-political existence that never existed in the past. It was never the case that the majority of Jews learned the Torah full-time instead of working. There were always a handful of illustrious and promising students who were supported by the community, and Torah study was always lifted as a high value, but not in place of work.”
Laudable is the desire to fulfill the Talmudic dictum stated above that תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים מַרְבִּים שָׁלום בָּעולָם (“Torah scholars increase peace in the world”), but comparing Torah study to putting one’s life on the line in defense of the country crosses a sacred red line for the majority of Israelis, and spits in the faces of those who don’t have the option to choose between full-time study and military service.
There is only one word to properly capture this sentiment: Chutzpah.
“The Haredi parties exploit the democratic process of coalition building to have the government give them special financial support and monopolistic control over religious services, as well as underwrite a separate educational system.
Simultaneously they seek to destroy the main protector of human rights in Israel, the Supreme Court, for daring to limit this process by upholding equal treatment for minorities and granting some recognition of pluralistic religious options,” As Rabbi Yitz Greenberg recently commented.
To be clear, I as an individual, and we as a Reform Zionist Movement are not Haredi-haters, as Tablet’s Liel Leibovitz accused this week. We just want the same standard applied to everyone equally, and I encourage any Jew to live the observant life that they choose, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the freedoms of others – as we say in the Talmud: p’shita.
With that, the gender segregation issue raises an interesting question. Just as I demand that the State recognize Reform and Progressive Judaism, and give legitimacy to the way we practice Judaism, we must also be tolerant and accepting of how others practice – to a certain point. If we are truly pluralistic then we can recognize the Haredi need for gender segregation in their limited communities and not be critical of the way they interpret Jewish law for themselves.
As an ex-Haredi friend explained to me, roughly a quarter of Haredim did not vote for Haredi parties. They still voted for right-wing parties, but this statistic demonstrates that many Haredim feel that the Haredi leadership does not accurately represent them. What’s more is that they are expressing with their votes that they are much more interested in integrating into Israeli society – including the workforce, higher education, and even military service. In practice, only around 1,000 Haredim are drafted to the IDF each year, out of around 11,000 Haredi males who turn 18 each year (Haredi females do not get drafted).
What used to be a marginal societal group is now increasingly mainstream. There is a significant Haredi trend of increasingly integrating into Israeli society. They are part of the workforce, pay taxes, and are consumers of public culture (they watch television, use the internet, listen to podcasts and music, etc…). They feel more and more a part of Israeli society as a whole and they want to be involved in the State and its day-to-day life.
Rivka Ravitz, a Haredi academic and writer, claims:
“This [gender segregation] is not exclusion, and there is no factor of discrimination in it. This principle is strictly observed and is at the core of the Haredi way of life. The cynical use of self-interested or political parties in extreme cases arising from the principle of separation is patronizing and wretched. It is my right as a woman to decide to live in a space where there is segregation between the sexes. No one forced me to be Haredi, and I don’t force anyone to be Haredi. I don’t force my opinion on anyone else, and if someone wants to enter a Haredi space – I expect them to act politely and respect the principles there.”
Ok, that’s all well and good, but what is considered a Haredi space? A synagogue? A private wedding hall? A neighborhood? An entire city? A university? A hospital? Public transportation? The Kotel?
Journalist Noa Ostereicher responded, saying that:
“Israel is crowded for all of us, but anyone who wants to isolate and be separate can do so – on their own time, of their own accord, and at their own expense. The yoke of religious observance is a burden one accepts for oneself, one doesn’t impose it on others. Anyone who doesn’t want to see or hear women can return to the cave, or go out in public with kugel stuffed in their ears and a burlap sack on their head. No matter how much olive oil they pour on it, we must refuse to swallow this frog. In addition, the state already funds plenty of sex-segregated places for immersion. They’re called mikvehs; the holy congregation is invited.”
There are of course many Israelis who see the Haredim as authentic and stalwart upholders of Jewish tradition and as keepers of the faith. Thus, they tolerate greater stringencies and more demands for implementing religiously backed initiatives for the Haredi community and beyond.
We must be clear, these demands by the Haredi leadership are not based in Torah or Halakha and are fundamentally an attempt to preserve political and religious power over the entirety of the State of Israel, oppose women’s leadership and independence, and fight the trends of modernization and integration into Israeli society as a whole. As pluralists, we Reform Jews should fight for the rights of everyone to observe as they choose up until the point where one’s own observance infringes on another’s rights to observe in their particular way. Having a Jewish State does not mean dismantling government institutions to serve one’s own community, nor does it mean that the public must change its behavior to accommodate those who will not compromise towards a common denominator.
In our own world, we are seeing this play out in the institutions owned and run by the Jewish World. We are seeing Diaspora representatives to Israel’s National Institutions of the Haredi parties work to extend their control over budgets and positions in order to advance a form of Judaism that has mutated into a new and previously unseen form of restrictive life. We cannot let this happen, which is why we must support our institutions and Reform Movement in Israel and build our strength and power in our own Movement. Israeli democracy is too important to allow any minority to dismantle it, whether they are right-wing extremists or Haredim.