Is the Religious Zionist Sector Unraveling?

Yair Ettinger is a longtime observer and chronicler of the religious community. For many years, he did this on behalf of the Ha’aretz and more recently for Israel’s public broadcaster Kan.

It is timely that in the year that has seen the breakdown of traditional religious Zionist politics Ettinger takes a deeper look at the fault lines that have developed within that same community. By using the play on words in his title, he has already hinted at his conclusion. The threads that united the national religious sector are fraying, and it seems this fraying is bound to continue.

Unraveled: Yair Ettinger, 2019, Kinneret Zmora Dvir

For a community that recently defined itself as the new elite to replace the elite of the Kibbutzim and founders of the state, this book tells us a story of a sector that can find fewer and fewer things to agree upon, and with a very limited ability to brings its values and strengths together in a single political force.

However, there is a deeper story. Of diverging religious responses to modernity, of competing narratives about feminism and the position of women as religious leaders, about LGBT and how modern religion should be relating to gay and lesbian coreligionists that seek to remain inside a religious community, and whether a religious monopoly in the shape of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate remains part of a messianic theme, or is at the heart of the religious problem of the Jewish State.

We are a little short in this book of empirical data as to how the religious Zionist community falls between the two camps, the more conservative Hardal, and the more liberal branches, and in some ways it would be fascinating to here responses to the book from the main protagonists on both sides. We are left with a series of thoughts about whether the rump of the national religious Israelis are really modern right wing Israelis, with a range of views on current social issues not so different to many of their less religious peers, or a group that sees its core religious identity as driving political choices and underpinning their perspective on modern social dilemmas.

Sadly the most recent analysis on the specifics attitudes are from 2014. An IDI Study showed that a large minority (45%) of religious Jews would accept same-sex couples in their synagogue, and a similar number (48%) support allowing women to serve as judges in religious courts. Shmuel Rosner, editor of Prumim (translated nicely to Unraveled), give us some additional hints via his own recent book #IsraeliJudaism. Rights across the spectrum, from the liberal to the Hardal the vast majority identity themselves as center-right or right and an overwhelming majority as right. The more religious you are the more this trend becomes obvious. The second thing that becomes obvious is that the trend from the previous to the current generation is to become less observant religiously, rather than the opposite. That is not to say that the traffic is all one way, but the net dynamic is towards less religious observance, as Rosner states “while the participants are confident in their Jewishness and its grasp on their offspring, the level of multi-generational religiosity decreases.” I would love to see a more in depth future collaboration between Ettinger and Rosner to look more deeply at these attitudes in the 80% of the sector in the middle.

The other interesting arena not touched upon in the book is the State Religious education system. This (along with right wing views) is the only other consensus issue for the religious Zionist community. Pretty much everyone participates. It would be natural to expect that the teachers in a religious education stream be more devout perhaps than the average student body, however the education field is seen as a key political/religious battleground between the liberals and conservatives when it comes to the content, staff and atmosphere. On the one hand the Hardal are highly represented within the system, and indeed there are many more avreichim (full-time Torah students) within the Hardal sub-stream than the rest of the sector in total (Har Hamor, the key Hardal institution lead by Rabbi Tzvi Tau, has approximately 500 married avrechim on its own, almost more than all the other Zionist Yeshivot together). This is a great source of educators and Rabbis for the future. On the other hand whilst their influence cannot be ignored, I am not sure that it should be overplayed. I am not aware what the impact that this has on the underlying attitudes of the 80% majority that do not completely identity as liberal or conservative religiously.

It is worth mentioning for the English reader what are the key fault-lines described in the book.

The first is the emergence of a new generation of female religious leaders, dedicated to Halacha, but breaking through barriers and glass ceilings, both with respect to religious behavior, and perhaps of greater consequence community leadership.

The second is the highly sensitive issue of members of the religious community who are also members of the LGBT community and are in permanent struggle in trying to find peace between these seemingly contradictory identities. Personally the emotional peak of the book was reached during this discussion as Ettinger brings sections of an article originally published in Makor Rishon (the central serious newspaper for the national religious public). The article, originally published anonymously is hear wrenching as it describes the personal anguish of a religious man describing “the difficulty that is almost too difficult to describe.” I was genuinely moved.

Whereas the first (religious feminism and the role of women in Torah scholarship and community leadership) has many defenders (albeit still a minority of Rabbis) that find authentic, if progressive, ways of permitting their growing role within Halacha, the dilemmas of the religious community and its gay and lesbian members reaches a wholly different level of difficulty with almost no real Halachic resolution in sight. The best that can be expected is a more public acceptance of the anguish and the human aspects of this, even as the liberal Halachic community in the main holds by the original Torah prohibitions. It is also in this case, the growing acceptance within religious communities specifically and general society overall, that the Hardal leadership becomes ferocious in its critique, condemning the IDF, the education system, and of course the liberal religious community for succumbing to the most progressive of modern trends, the normalization of LGBT and its move towards complete legal and social equality.

The other topics referred to relate to two slightly different aspects of reduced Rabbinic authority. In one case, this even stretches into the conservative world itself, as the increasingly successful campaign figure-headed by former Likud MK Yehuda Glick to normalize the entry to Har Habayit (Temple Mount), once an almost complete taboo for all religious Jews, Zionist and Haredi alike. Alongside this phenomenon is the growing discontent and even despair over the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, now seen as an exclusively Haredi controlled institution that is become more and more exclusionary to different parts of the Jewish world and less in touch with the wider Israeli and Jewish Diaspora population. Once seen as part of the process of redemption itself (having been founded by the great hero and father of religious Zionism Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook) it is now perceived by many as corrupt and a narrow religious monopoly dominated by the non-Zionist Haredi leadership, indeed a pawn in the secular political game to keep the Haredim on-side.

Whilst this may not have been Ettinger’s main intention, it is clear from the book that the anxieties and sometimes panic relating to the future influence on Israeli society from a more confident and strident national religious community is unfounded. It is almost amusing to read the quotes that Ettinger brings us that show this panic level, with one Ha’aretz writer claiming that the religious Zionist camp is a greater danger to Israel than the Hezbollah. Aside from the grotesque description and complete negativity attached to the community, ignoring the huge contribution its sons and daughters have made and continue to make, it is humorous on the backdrop of Ettinger’s account of the somewhat dysfunctional politics that we have witnessed over the last year. Because the politics seems to reflect an underlying lack of cohesiveness at a religious or ideological level, it would seem that the panic gripping certain parts of Israeli secular society are borderline pathological.

As I reflect on the book I consider the organizations that promote or represent the members of the religious Zionist sector with a more defined liberal religious outlook. I think of Neemanei Torah v’Avoda, Kolech, Lindenbaum, Matan, Harel, Aluma, Hashgacha Pratit, ITIM, Havruta and Beit Hillel (there are of course others, my apologies for not bringing an exhaustive list). There is no doubt that they represent real trends that are here to stay, more religious girls volunteering for army service, more women in serious Torah learning and aspiring to community leadership roles, more debate and deep reflection on questions of sexual identity within a religious community etc, and at the same time, they are all outliers with a minority voice within my community.

Ettinger sums up accurately that all these issues continue to ferment; new ideas continue to develop, driving more debate both inside and beyond the religious community. Whilst the specter of a religious takeover is highly overplayed within wider Israeli society, I am sure that many of the issues being debated within the religious community will have a major impact on Israeli society. Moreover these and other big questions will combine in parallel with debates going on in other part of Israeli society as the Jewish State continues its great struggle to define what the Jewish part of that state should look like. Ettinger gives us an excellent and up to date window in one of the important Tribes of modern Israel, and as such I highly recommend.

About the Author
Daniel Goldman is a social entrepreneur and the Founding Partner of Goldrock Capital, one of Israel's leading multi-family offices. Daniel is the founder of The Institute for Jewish and Zionist Research and co-chairs the Coalition for Haredi Employment. He is the former chairman of World Bnei Akiva, and immediate past chairman of Gesher.
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