Two weeks ago while the country was grappling with a storm outside, there was another storm brewing inside the halls of the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva in Jerusalem; the Yeshiva started by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook in 1924 which was supposed to serve as the flagship institution of Religious Zionism. A group of Religious Zionist rabbis popularly known as “Kavnekim” (from the Hebrew word kav – line; representative of hard liners who adhere strictly to and rarely venture or explore beyond the teachings of Rabbi Kook) met at the Yeshiva to discuss reviving the activity of the so called “longtime” rabbinic association “Derech Emunah – The Path of Faith”. The rabbis decided to revitalize their activities (or inactivity as it were) in the hope of establishing their relevance in Israel.
An article on the Arutz Sheva news touted how, “some of Israel’s leading and most venerable religious Zionist rabbis attended alongside many young, energetic rabbis, all of whom represent mainstream Orthodox life and values as disseminated by the flagship Zionist yeshiva, Merkaz Harav and its offshoots.”
The premise of this report and really the entire meeting is problematic because it suggests that the Merkaz HaRav yeshiva represents mainstream Orthodox life and values, when it does not. It also presumes that the young rabbis who attended the institution and claim to be leaders of Religious Zionism, understand what the values of Religious Zionism represent, when they do not.
For example, Rabbi Yakov Ariel who is considered a main halachic authority particularly for this part of the religious Zionist world, recently stated that it was prohibited for women to speak from the pulpit of a Synagogue and that if a woman did so it was a Hilul Hashem – desecration of Gods name (a term which seems to be surfacing all too often in the Jewish community recently).
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, head of the Ateret Kohanim yeshiva in Jerusalem and also considered a forefront leader of the religious Zionist world (at least the one which Merkaz HaRav studetns claim to belong to) stated last year that one who gives birth to a down syndrome child, in addition to the typical “happy” blessing of Shehecheyanu (thanking God for bringing one to this time) made for all newborn babies, the parent should also make the blessing Baruch Dayan Ha’emet (Blessed is the true Judge), which is made when a person learns of a death.
Rabbi Dov Lior of Hebron and considered a prize student of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, when asked a few months ago what should be the proper attitude of rabbis and religious leaders appointed by the public he responded saying, first and foremost rabbis must ensure that the land of Israel is not compromised; they must staunchly oppose any proposal suggesting that a small portion of the land can be compromised and, if indeed such policy is affirmed the rabbis must “wage war” against a government which advocates such policy.
Just a few months ago, Rabbi Benny Nechtailer head of Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, the largest religious Zionist youth group, called upon all girls who attend Beni Akiva ulpanot or girls’ yeshiva high schools, to come to the Western Wall and protest the prayer service of the Women of the Wall.
All of these rabbis are students of Rabbi Kook and the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva; do they sound like representatives of mainstream Orthodoxy? Do they sound like enlightened leaders of a community which supposedly fashions itself on tolerance, consideration and open-mindedness? Do they sound like the kind of rabbis who understand that before one sanctifies the world around them they have to first understand the ramifications of what it means to live in it? Are these rabbis truly living up to the aspirations and ideals of their spiritual mentor, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who wrote in his magnum opus, Orot, regarding the three distinctive groups in Israeli society:
Orthodoxy which waves the banner of holiness.. . the second which is Nationalism…and the third, Liberalism…all demand the essence of what makes mankind, education, culture and ethics. It is obvious that to maintain a healthy existence all three must coexist and we must always strive to reach for this coexistence…it is not sufficient to recognize the positives of each one of these strengths but we must recognize the weaknesses of each one as well because recognizing weaknesses keeps us honest and helps us avoid exaggeration and hyperbole.
Would I be exaggerating were I to suggest that Rabbi Kook is warning against the traps of extremism?
Rabbi Kook seems to be warning against the traps of extremism, yet the young energetic rabbi who was appointed to spearhead the project of getting the religious Zionist rabbis more exposure in the media was none other than Rabbi Baruch Efrati. This is the same Rabbi Efrati who just over a year ago proclaimed that the Islamization of Europe was a good thing and that Jews should “rejoice at the fact that Europe is paying for what it did to us for hundreds of years by losing its identity.” This is the same Rabbi Efrati who defended the efforts of Islam spreading throughout Europe making no distinction whatsoever between radical Islam saying, “With the help of God, the gentiles there will adopt a healthier life with a lot of modesty and integrity, and not like the hypocritical Christianity which appears pure but is fundamentally corrupt.”
Efrati praised the Islamic faith as a religion which is relatively honest and educates a bit more for a stable life of marriage and creation, where there is certain modesty and respect for God,” as opposed to Christianity, which, as the rabbi explains, is idolatry and has a tendency to “destroy normal life (apparently something which Radical Islam does not do???) and abstain from it on the one hand, while losing modesty on the other hand”.
Even if what Efrati was saying made sense, one would have to question his media savvy and wonder if the rabbi considered whether it was wise to publicize such radical and potentially damaging statements in the first place. After such considerations one also begins to understand why these rabbis and the institutions they represent remain insignificant across the broader consensus of the Israeli community.
The article continues explaining how “the traditional mainstream Zionist rabbis, whose lives are dedicated to the sanctified labor involved in enhancing Jewish life and study, each in his own city, congregation or yeshiva, now feel that they must also ensure that their voices be heard by the general public in an organized, synchronized manner.
While this description may have intended to be complimentary in actuality it exposes a weakness, for it is precisely because these rabbis dedicate themselves to their own city, congregation or yeshiva, that they have indeed limited their effect and influence on the rest of society, which, from a Religious Zionist perspective is counterintuitive. Many of these rabbis are busy building an insular Torah world from within as opposed to fulfilling what their teacher Rabbi Kook, seems to suggest above; impressing upon the comprehensive Jewish community in Israel the meaningful attributes that Judaism has to offer and the advantages of adopting Jewish values and identity as a progressive lifestyle as opposed to a rigorous system which appears to be coercive and all too often judgmental.
Recently I found myself engaged in a conversation with a young man who studies in a “Kavnik” yeshiva and who considers himself a legitimate representative of its philosophy. I challenged him regarding the cloistered methodology of Merkaz HaRav and explained to him how, according to my understanding, Rabbi Kook preached the importance of appreciating the purity of every Jew regardless of affiliation or lack of it thereof. The young man described how the Kavnik institutions were achieving Rabbi Kook’s ideals by establishing houses of Torah, yeshivas and religious communities which would enlighten all of Israel. I pressed on explaining to this young man that many Israelis would never set foot in a yeshiva or synagogue, nor were they interested at all in learning about religion and in fact many did not even believe in God; yet many of these same Israelis would do anything necessary to preserve the Jewishness of the State; how were the Kavnekim planning to assist the secular Israelis who wanted to facilitate and enhance a cultural, historical and ideological connection to Israel but certainly not a religious one?
The root of the problem is that the Merkaz HaRav community consists of rabbis who cannot separate religion from Judaism, nor can they tolerate those who do. To a Kavnik a secular Jew represents someone who should be brought back “to the fold”; this is wrong and insulting to the secular Israeli. As an Orthodox rabbi I would love for every Jew to adhere to the words of the Torah but God forbid were I to disqualify those who do not, or even worse, doubt the sincere connection they have to their Jewish roots. So long as the rabbis of “the Kav” fail to incorporate this concept their ability to influence will consistently dwindle as it has over the last twenty years.
The report from Arutz Sheva bitterly concludes, “on the fringe of the religious sector a new generation has risen whose laxity in observing halakhah (Jewish Law) comes with an ideological ‘cover.’ This latter group publicizes itself everywhere and gets admiring media coverage, even in newspapers that are thought to aim at the Religious Zionist sector.”
Perhaps it is time for Merkaz HaRav, its rabbinic figures and even its news station to stop espousing accusations at those who receive media attention, look within themselves and follow the words of their great master Rabbi Kook:
The truly righteous do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.