A New-Old Voice

“Building the State of Israel”, “contributing to all its components – society, economy, the IDF”, “participation in academia”, “respect of non-Jews”, “adherence to the law”, “promotion of women’s status”, “attentive discourse” – these were the principles discussed at the founding conference of a new Israeli organization. It sounds like classic Zionism. In a manner of speaking it was, but with a distinct flavor. Add to it the organization’s aims “to provide a moderate, multifaceted, and clear voice of Judaism”, “to restore trust in the world of halacha”, “to address issues from a Torah perspective”, “to include both men and women in Torah leadership”, and “to act on a deep belief in the value of combining the Torah with life in the modern State of Israel” – and you actually have a description of classic Religious Zionism.

Exactly one year ago over one hundred Orthodox male rabbis and female Torah scholars gathered to build upon their frustration over the advancement of the ultra-Orthodox stance as the seeming representation of Orthodox Judaism in Israel. The group, en masse, opposes the approach of the Nationalist Haredi stream (Hardal) which has taken on many of the patterns of thought that were once considered to be the sole domain of the Haredi world. Speaker after speaker disputed those Hardal patterns which include separation from secular society, negation of the academic world, the lowering of women’s status, hostile attitudes towards non-Jews living in Israel, confrontation with the state’s legal institutions, increased stringency regarding modesty issues, and more. These Torah scholars countered the Hardal and ultra-Orthodox mold of thought — with moderation, recognition of complexity and the attachment of religious value to the State of Israel. The atmosphere was that of re-establishing true Religious Zionism. The general halachic approach of this group of religious leaders is based on the “pleasant ways of the Torah”. Hence the name chosen for the new organization: “Beit Hillel”.

Beit Hillel in its original form refers to the School of Hillel, usually juxtaposed to the School of Shammai, both of whom were the dominant scholars during first century Israel. Hillel and Shammai had been the major tannaitic sages who held many points of Jewish law in dispute. Aside from a few exceptions, the halacha was determined according to Hillel’s views. The approach of Hillel and his school has traditionally been considered to be lenient, open, tolerant and even universalistic. Those individuals who banded together one evening in the Netanya Blue Bay Hotel early February 2012, did so to raise the banner of the School of Hillel in contemporary Israel.

Feeling that Israeli society has been stricken with blow after blow of religious extremism, the rabbis and their female counterparts set out to decry the erosion of ethics, of human dignity and of loyalty to the democratic State emanating from the ultra-Orthodox (whether Nationalist or not) philosophy and actions. The responsibility the group has accepted upon itself is to present a positive approach to Judaism in modern Israel, representing the Torah as the Torah of life, while actively contributing to Israeli society on all levels. The founding conference of Beit Hillel was considered to be a “first” in its own right—as it is the first time an Israeli organization of Orthodox rabbis has been formed which included scholarly woman as members of equal standing. This facet itself is an indication that the Israeli Religious Zionist population is being told by its leaders to rethink old mores and to publicly demonstrate its values.

Classic Religious Zionism supported the idea of combining Torah with Derech Eretz – the ways of the modern world—in the Jewish homeland. It was open to the world while at the same time dealing head on with faith issues arising from it. It was committed to preserving human dignity, out of both Torah and Derech Eretz. Ironically, the voice of the Religious Zionist leadership seems to have dimmed in the past decades. The irony is that the voice has not been heard specifically at the time when the individuals brought up in accordance with those principles are not only fully integrated into every aspect of society and the State, many have gone on to realize the vision by filling leadership positions. Their deeds are felt everywhere — but the voice of the Religious Zionist leadership has not been heard.

Since its inception Beit Hillel has set out a clear platform regarding core subjects of Israeli society: halakha and democracy; compliance with the law and judicial system; loyalty to the IDF; religious-secular relations; the rights of gentiles in the Jewish state; academia and education; status of women in religion, torah-study, leadership and agunot. Halakhic rulings have been issued after being reached in a unique “beit midrash” process, regarding social interaction based on dining in the homes of the non-religious as well as a ruling dealing with men and women interacting in the workplace. Members have gone out to hear the residents of southern Israel, the foreign workers and even rabbis who do not share their views. A timely halakhic ruling is forthcoming explaining why it is permitted for women to read Megillat Esther on Purim for other women. Beit Hillel has shown that it is attentive, responsive and reaches the people it serves – as can be evidenced by its strong presence in the social media.

The Torah scholars and religious leaders of Beit Hillel, men and women alike, are all actively engaged in Israeli society in the full spectrum of issues. Their actions have been felt. Nonetheless, they realized that leading by practical example is localized — it is not necessarily felt on a national level. Beginning February 2012, Beit Hillel raised its voice from within the responsibility of Torah observance while joining with the Israeli public at large to build and maintain a vibrant, healthy society in the State of Israel. A year after its founding, the voice of Beit Hillel is heard on a national level.

About the Author
Rachel Levmore, PhD in Talmud and Jewish Law from Bar Ilan University, is the director of the Agunah and Get-Refusal Prevention Project of the International Young Israel Movement in Israel and the Jewish Agency; one of the authors of the prenuptial "Agreement for Mutual Respect"; author of "Min'ee Einayich Medim'a" on prenuptial agreements for the prevention of get-refusal; and the first female Rabbinical Court Advocate to serve on the Israel Commission for the Appointment of Rabbinical Court Judges.