Religion and politics are never far apart in the Promised Land, but a new intra-religious civil war with a characteristically Israeli mix of high-octane ideology and gutter-level politicking has lately been grabbing the headlines. Unseemly as the whole thing is, the conflict has at least one virtue: It is laying some fundamental questions of commitment and doctrine squarely on the table. The Talmud refers to the Land of Israel as “where heaven and earth kiss.” The romance of heaven and earth, like every great passion, unleashes powerful, contradictory emotions.
The new government of Benjamin Netanyahu offers little in the way of diplomatic news, and on the domestic front it is saddled with the huge budget deficit left over from his previous administration. One feature of this new government, though, is indeed electrifying, and promises to reshuffle Israel’s political deck. For the first time in memory, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike, are out of the government. Both the voters and the machinations of coalition building have dealt them out of power—and that means they are also away from the budget, which in Israel’s parliamentary set-up has the character of a legal patronage system. For decades, keeping the various ultra-Orthodox groups and parties happy and inside a series of coalition governments has trumped any possibility of dealing foursquare with their ideological challenges and demands for financial support; that is finally changing. But how things turn out depends in large part on the Religious Zionist and secular camps, themselves heterogeneous, which face some serious internal reckonings of their own.
Several issues have been in play recently, two above all: the race for the Chief Rabbinate, and the move to draft ultra-Orthodox young men and thus convey them not only into uniform but also the workforce. Both are momentous.
First, the rabbinate. Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi, the other Sephardi, elected for ten-year terms by a public council composed ostensibly (very ostensibly) of representatives of a wide swath of the public. How did this arrangement come to be?
The Chief Rabbinate was created in 1921, during the years of the British Mandate. Following established colonial practice and building on both the Ottoman system and traditional post-Napoleonic European practice, the British wanted a body to which they could farm out things like religion, charities and domestic relations. The Zionists wanted a respectable religious leadership to represent them in public and give religious sanction to their revolutionary enterprise.
Simple enough, except that the first and still the most famous Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), had other ideas. A lyrical mystic and towering theologian, he saw secular Zionist revolutionaries as unwitting players in a divinely driven, Messianic drama that would not only restore the Jews to their land but, through a mix of religious renaissance and social justice in the land of Israel, redeem the entire human race. Kook reconciled traditional rabbinic views with modern Zionism, and not only with Zionist politics but also with its utopian revolution against Jewish tradition, an intellectual and spiritual feat most religious and secular Jews would have believed impossible. When the prayer for the State of Israel is recited in congregations around the world, the phrase defining Israel as the “the beginning of the dawn of our redemption” is uttered without particular note; in truth, it is a revolutionary idea in traditional Jewish thinking.
Kook and his vision were bitterly opposed, then and now, by the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, a term that, ironically enough, roughly translates as “Quakers.” The Haredim are themselves divided into many groups, but all have in common the rejection of modernity and its works in principle, even if they have to accommodate themselves to it in practice. The Haredim also reject Zionism as an ideology and the legitimacy of the Israeli state to have any say in matters pertaining to religion (though they support Jewish statehood as an expedient). By the terms of a deal struck in the early 1950s between David Ben-Gurion and the then-leader of Haredi Jewry, the great scholar and saint Avraham Karelitz, known by his pen name, Hazon Ish (1878–1953), the Haredim were exempted from military duty so they could devote themselves to Torah study, in classical Judaism a supreme religious value, taken to new heights since the 19th century, and seen as an ultimate fortification against modernity—and willingly renounced participation in the workforce. Since then, their numbers have swelled, as has their dependence on the public fisc. Ben-Gurion thought he was creating a kind of Colonial Williamsburg in Yiddish, one he could easily control. He was wrong.
Through the decades, the Religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox have gone their separate, highly contested ways, while working deep changes of their own on Israeli society. The former eventually spearheaded the settlement movement and are its most vehement supporters today. The latter have steadily grown in numbers, to the point where their leaders’ insistent refusal to allow Haredim to serve in the army and join the workforce has become a focus of resentment in Israeli society at large (and a convenient means of deflecting the anger of Israel’s stressed middle class).
The Haredim, perhaps precisely because they see themselves as existential outsiders to Israel’s political institutions, have proven remarkably adept at working them to their advantage. As much as they disapprove in principle of the Chief Rabbinate, in practice they adore its uses for power, not least through its control of marriage and divorce and its lucrative opportunities for kosher certification. And they have managed to turn the Rabbinate, the creation of the man and the Religious Zionist movement whose beliefs they reject, into their own massive patronage mill, which is their principal vehicle for imposing their religious vision onto Israeli society.
The current Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yonah Metzger, is a non-entity. The Haredim placed him in office as a cut-out and a sly demonstration of just how little they think of the handiwork of their arch-nemesis Kook and his disciples. Metzger, whose gleeful amoralism has been on display for years, was put on house arrest last month on charges of bribery and corruption.
The race for his successor, heated for months and scheduled to come to a vote on July 24, has become a full-fledged donnybrook. The Haredim have been doing their best to seat either a candidate of their own or at least one who will do their bidding. They are on the ropes, since the one concrete change in the public agenda arising from the massive protests of two years ago has been the call to get them into the army and the workforce. Many rank-and-file Haredim would like to do that, but many would not, and their leadership certainly do not. That leadership is now fighting for its public life Just a few days ago, the Israeli Cabinet approved a bill that would draft them en masse—a clumsy piece of legislation that plays into the hands of Haredi ideologues.
The Religious Zionists, meanwhile, ideologically committed to a broad-based national religious establishment, have been tearing themselves apart over the candidacy of David Stav. Stav is a moderate Religious Zionist rabbi with a large following who believes in a relatively (very relatively) responsive and flexible Rabbinate. He is bitterly opposed not only by the Haredim but by many other religious nationalists. Some of Stav’s opponents admire his flexibility and openness as fine traits for a neighborhood rabbi, but they believe that the Chief Rabbinate must hold the line on religious practice and guard the ideological ramparts come what may. More profoundly, however, Stav’s candidacy has exposed a fascinating and consequential fault line within the Religious Zionists—between those, like him, whose religious nationalist commitments also bespeak a fundamental, if circumspect engagement with Western ideas and culture and those religious nationalists who share ultra-Orthodoxy’s principled rejection of Western culture.
Last month Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, founder of the Shas Party (and Sephardi social movement) and undisputed, real Sephardi Chief Rabbi (despite his formally having left the post several decades ago) did further damage to his already tarnished (in many ways tragically so) historical reputation by a flat-out attack on Stav as “wicked.” Shas chairman Aryeh Deri (who has by now disabused the public of the idea that his time in jail on a corruption conviction had made him rethink his undeniably brilliant Machiavellianism) gamely explained that Rav Ovadia had not meant by “wicked” that Stav was a bad person, only that he was, in the strict legal sense of the term in classic Jewish sources, guilty of wrongdoing. Well, Deri should know.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Home party, successor to the National Religious party, has announced a Sephardic candidate of its own, Shmuel Eliyahu, son of a former Sephardic Chief Rabbi, and a man best known for his forbidding renting to Arabs as a matter of religious law, and urging the faithful to “avenge” the Gaza disengagement of 2005 by proselytizing secular Israelis' children.
Another son of a former Chief Rabbi, the Ashkenazi David Lau, has the smart money for now. A smooth, respectable and presentable figure, he will put a smiling face on his utter obeisance to the Haredim.
As so often happens with Israeli politics, on witnessing all this, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Laughing is better, however, because there is something about humor that opens a window onto the bigger questions here. At stake in these demeaning brawls are, still after all these years, large and powerful questions—theological questions included—whose reach goes well beyond Israeli politics.
A few years ago, I told a friend of mine, a brilliant ex-Haredi intellectual named Aharon Rose, that it had long seemed to me that a key difference between Religious Zionists and Haredim is that the latter, by and large, have a better sense of humor. He agreed, and had a theory as to why. Religious Zionists, he said, see themselves and their daily lives as part of stirring historical drama of cosmic significance taking place here and now. Haredim, by contrast, live with a sense of an unbridgeable gap between reality and their ideals, an abyss that can only be managed by joking about it.
Jokes are one way of managing that abyss. Another is that still-useful mental tool, the dialectic. Dialectical thinking teaches us how opposites can actually reinforce one another en route to achieving some sort of synthesis—until we start again another day. Like Trotsky said, even if the masses aren’t interested in the dialectic, the dialectic is interested in them. What does this mean?
I once was told by Menachem Friedman, dean of academic students of Haredi Judaism, that the crucial weakness of Haredi society was its inability to think dialectically, and in particular, to grasp that its members’ own religious freedom is acutely dependent on the liberal political and social order they (or at least their leaders) love to hate. They have no larger theological or philosophical framework with which to think that through; for a group whose origins are to be found in a rich tradition of Jewish intellectualism, today’s Haredi leaders are strikingly and curiously bad at abstract thought.
That absence of dialectical thinking has its roots in a twin banishment that lies at the heart of Israeli Haredi life. The banishment of the secular, outside world is the obvious first banishment, but the other is the banishment of heaven from earth through the positing of a realm of religious values so absolute and uncompromising that any attempt to accommodate them to worldly values is taken as heresy and betrayal. This twin banishment thus places an insuperable burden on attempts to forge any reasonable accommodation with non-Haredi life, a burden under which many typical Haredim are being crushed, with no way to get out from under except abandoning their version of the faith.
The banishment of heaven from earth is common and understandable enough in the history of sectarianism, but here we have a group of sects, a breakaway religious grouping, that tries to be a church in the sense of an all-encompassing body that aims to organize the lives, sacred and secular, of a large and varied community of believers. A few years ago, sociologists Shlomo Fischer and Zvi Beckerman astutely observed that the secret of Shas’s success lies in the fact that it functions in sectarian fashion at the top while on the popular level it functions as a church. Ashkenazi Haredim have not managed that same division, in part because, as the great Hungarian-born educator and historian Jacob Katz pointed out, they are deeply modern in their turning fluid social practices into ideology—in other words, in their turning tradition into traditionalism. In the absence of any mediating term between heaven and earth, any ability dialectically to relate the two, contemporary Haredim are left to fend for themselves. The results can be brutal and deforming.
Turning to Religious Zionism, we see the opposite: a total collapsing of immanence and transcendence into one another. In Rav Kook’s teachings, the secular Zionism that led the charge to create the Jewish state and revolutionize Jewish life was the unwitting instrument of historical processes, the roots and direction of which it is unaware. Now, any halfway decent Marxist theoretician could have told you that. But more deeply, for Rav Kook, steeped in the Jewish mystical tradition, those processes are rooted in an even deeper cosmic process, one in which the spirit within all matter strives to come to self-expression. The aim of this striving is not to spiritualize matter but to dissolve the very distinction between matter and spirit, body and soul. As this distinction dissolves, along with it dissolves the narrow, artificial and neurotic Western-originated concoction we call religion. That such a fantastic journey could happen through the convoluted pathways of history was made possible only by a deeply dialectical process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis (for instance, Biblical Judaism concrete and embodied—Exilic Judaism, spiritualized and ethereal—Redeemed Judaism, uniting body and spirit). So dialectical is that process that each side of the dyad stubbornly must express its own true self: The religious must be religious and the secular must be secular, nationalism must be nationalist and universal ethics must be universal ethics. But it all comes out right and unified in the end.
The key innovation of Rav Kook’s son Zvi Yehudah (1891–1982), the spiritual godfather of the settler movement, was to remove the dialectic—to say that secular Zionism had completed its historic role, and was done. As a result, for Zvi Yehudah, the fusion of heaven and earth—of the land and state of Israel with the eschatological synthesis—was already complete and needed only to be acted on over and against a recalcitrant establishment. The foundations for these ideas had been laid before 1967, but what spurred them into reality was the 1973 Yom Kippur War. With the prospect of apocalypse having seemed all too real, the messianic energies of Rav Kook the elder’s teachings as interpreted by his son took wing, aided not a little by the spirit of youthful rebellion of the 1960s, which, when it washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean, did so in the form of the Gush Emunim (Block of the Believers). The member of the Gush truly believed that just one more revolution—its revolution—would at long last save the human race.
The revolutionary fervor of Gush Emunim has since hardened and cooled into a grim posture of struggle. Religious Zionism has receded from the white-hot fervor of Gush Emunim, but it has retained its penumbra, making it possible for Religious Zionism to mainstream itself in its new ideological form. That form is very different from both staid pre-1967 Religious Zionism and post-1973 messianic Religious Zionism. Now it can find political expression in the rise of someone like Naftali Bennett, whose religious commitments merge seamlessly into the commando elite and the hi-tech ethos of Tel Aviv, if perhaps not yet oh-so-chic north Tel-Aviv.
The rise of the new Religious Zionism has been abetted by developments in another sector: mainstream Zionism, which has been set adrift in its own cultural stupor. Both the settler movement and Haredi Judaism have come to see themselves as new vanguards, rising to take the place of a tired secular Zionist establishment that no longer believes in its own values. Both believe that the Israeli establishment has alienated itself from the Jewish cultural sources that made its earlier generations at the very least worthy debate partners, or, for the more ideological minded, groups with whom one could wage a full-out dialectic.
The movements toward Jewish cultural renaissance in recent years have been a step toward recreating a non-religious, liberal-minded Jewish-Israeli culture. And the viral video of one of that movement’s leaders, with newly minted Knesset member Ruth Calderon, speaks to the hunger for that renewal. But it still has a long, long way to go.
Thus, in confronting Haredi Judaism and its increasing assertiveness, which are as much signs of change and internal crisis as they are of triumphalism and aggressiveness, Israeli society’s establishment—or what’s left of it—must confront the crisis of its own values. It’s not a pretty picture. The collapse of the commanding, highly centralized Labor ethos of the founding decades has splintered Israel into a collection of unabashedly self-asserting tribes. Those sectors of Israeli society still committed to forging a decent polity at large must recapture some sort of language for dealing with complexity. They cannot afford to retreat into the comforts of technological success and the false messianisms of faith, power or, on the Left, the paralyzing cocktail of despair and good intentions. Rather like the Haredim, they need to find a new way of simultaneously talking and living in dialogue with both heaven and earth, without confusing one for the other, and without disturbing the integrity and inescapable discipline of either.