Breaking the Ultra-Orthodox Control Over Israel
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate, backed by its ultra-Orthodox political factions, is negatively affecting the entire state of Israel.
In previous generations, we were blessed with chief rabbis that were worldly, spiritual giants — who sought to harmonize Halachah with the modern requirements of a Jewish state.
The current Chief Rabbinate, however, is dominated by obscurantist and extreme elements that engage in vulgar, boorish and vile curses against the non-Orthodox. Further, the rabbinate has no standing as an institution when it comes to Halachah.
Haredi extortion caused Prime Minister Netanyahu to revoke the Western Wall compromise — initially approved by the haredi representatives — whereby non-Orthodox Jews would have been allowed to worship at a separate part of the wall, as they saw fit.
Netanyahu’s revocation of the compromise created enormous tensions with American Jewry, which is dominated by the Conservative and Reform movements. Added to this anger was the Chief Rabbinate’s efforts to prevent unaffiliated Israeli Orthodox rabbis from officiating at weddings.
Further, it was recently revealed that thousands of converts to Judaism — and their entire families — had been placed on a rabbinical blacklist and informed that their conversions were invalid. Some had already married under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate, but were subsequently re-examined and found to lack adequate documentation.
This is ridiculous, since most Jews from the former-Soviet Union are unable to provide any form of documentation whatsoever. To “un-Jew” these individuals is utterly unprecedented. The Chief Rabbinate also reportedly has a blacklist of Diaspora Orthodox rabbis, whose conversions or letters certifying the Jewishness of a person are deemed unacceptable.
The principal concern of haredi rabbis is that their students devote their entire lives to learning Torah (even if many do not actually devote their time to genuine Torah study). The students rely on social welfare to subsist, and, above all, are denied a secular education and contact with Israeli society. This is unprecedented in Jewish history.
These factors help explain the grinding poverty in the ultra-Orthodox ranks. Most haredi wives work, and while some haredi men work illegally, less than 50 percent of haredi men earn a livelihood in a recognized workplace.
Recently, the situation has dramatically escalated, because of the demographic impact of the high birth rates of the haredim — whose annual growth rate is 4%, compared to 1% in the non-haredi population. If current trends are sustained, their growth as a percentage of Israel’s total population is expected to be 14% in 2024, and 27% in 2050. At that time, the haredim will account for 35% of the total Jewish population in Israel.
If the current situation does not change, this growth rate and the resultant drain on the economy will lead to an implosion of Israel, as the state will not be able to sustain an ever-increasing proportion of its citizens that are reliant on social welfare.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that the haredi community must participate in Israeli military service. The Court held that there are no grounds for blanket religious exemptions — and gave the government a one-year grace period to rectify the situation.
Conscription of the haredim is undoubtedly one of the most emotional and divisive issues that has ever faced the nation. It originated with our first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who acceded to pleas from Agudat Yisrael leaders to give a dispensation from army service to approximately 400 yeshiva students — not for religious reasons, but to compensate for their peers who perished in the Shoah.
To their everlasting shame, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis in later generations exploited this history to obtain blanket exemption for all haredi yeshiva students. Because the haredi political parties held the balance of power in the Knesset– except for a brief interregnum when they were excluded from the government and Yair Lapid introduced legislation to conscript them — haredi yeshiva students were allowed to evade conscription. They also remained isolated from mainstream Israeli society.
The justification was that their contribution to the defense of the nation was based on prayer and the study of the Torah. These arguments outraged the bulk of the nation, whose children are obliged to serve for a period of two to three years. The haredi arguments were particularly resented by religious Zionists, who regard IDF service as a mitzvah — and a religious obligation.
If a poll were held today, it would no doubt show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis applaud the High Court’s judgment. Retiring Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, an observant Jew who defends the haredi lifestyle, summed up the issue: “The blood of one man is no redder than the blood of another.”
The onus now rests on the Knesset. The coalition and the opposition could finally break the exasperating stranglehold of the extremist rabbinate and reinstate a moderate rabbinical leadership that will pursue national objectives.
One of the greatest disappointments in this area has been the attitude of the Habayit HaYehudi political party, whose principal mandate should be to encourage a harmonious fusion of religion and state. Instead, it has concentrated on expanding land settlement and forsaken its mission to enable religious Zionism to reclaim a central role in the state.
The party’s leader, Naftali Bennett, has sat on the fence and acquiesced as the extremists in his party became dominant. As education minister, he has declined to impose a minimum secular curriculum in the haredi schools. He has also deffered to Tkuma, the extreme right-wing faction of his party, which tends to identify with the haredim on religious issues.
Legislating a solution to the conscription issue is enormously challenging. Setting aside the street protests and insurrection that could result from such a move, the real issue is whether the IDF could cope with a huge influx of insulated haredim, who have no form of contact outside of their own world.
Conscription cannot be imposed overnight, and must be a gradual, evolving process. Every effort must be made to recognize haredi cultural distinctiveness, and ensure that their genuine religious requirements are met. A limited number of haredim could be granted exemptions, in addition to those who are totally unsuited for conscription. The IDF would face the challenge of drafting those who are suitable, and training them for roles in which they can serve.
There is also the question of how to enforce the law. We certainly would not seek to fill our jails with haredim. To his credit, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman proposed a rational solution. Those refusing to be conscripted should be classified as breaking the law, and denied social welfare — and those yeshivot instructing their students to defy the law should be denied all state subsidies. If both coalition and opposition parties supported this approach, the resistance from the haredi extremist rabbis would be quashed, and one of Israel’s most divisive internal schisms could ultimately be healed.
This could lead to breaking the stranglehold of the extremist Chief Rabbinate, and lead to highly overdue reforms supervised by moderate Zionist rabbis. This would delight the majority of Israelis.
It would also lead to the integration of haredim into the mainstream, as is the case in the Diaspora, where many of their kinsmen make valuable contributions to their respective Jewish communities. It could further lead to the haredi community embracing worldliness and adhering to Maimonides’ golden rule of moderation. Alas, today, Maimonides, a physician and philosopher, would be ineligible to teach in most haredi institutions.
Haredim have a unique lifestyle that should be respected, as long as they do not seek to impose their approach on others. They are a welcome contrast to the hedonistic elements dominating many segments of the secular world. Their piety, devotion and support for the needy is a template to emulate.
Regrettably, we should not be too optimistic about the prospects for haredi integration, because a genuine breakthrough is unlikely. Netanyahu fears alienating the haredim and their political parties. Thus, the most likely scenario is that Netanyahu might seek legislation overriding the Supreme Court on this issue.
Ultimately, however, objective economic pressures will oblige more and more young haredi men to disregard their rabbis, join the workforce and bring about change.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom and the Jerusalem Post.