The Blessings of Religious Disunity

The most recent elections in Jerusalem should bring a sigh of relief to those that fear an eventual demographic takeover by the religious sector in Israel. In a sign of what is likely to continue happening even as the religious sector grows, although the active electorate in this city has a religious majority, it nonetheless elected a clearly secular candidate.

The math is easy. Three haredi parties garnered 14 seats while two national religious parties received another 3 seats. Without even counting religious voters that voted for other parties, the total comes to 17 out of 31 city council seats, an obvious majority. Moreover, given that Nir Barkat received less than 52% of the vote, it is quite possible that had there not been dissent within the traditional base of United Torah Judaism (the main Ashkenazi haredi party), Moshe Lion would now be mayor of Jerusalem.

For many on the outside, it is hard to understand how what seems like a monolithic group could shoot itself in the foot so badly. True, many insiders don’t understand it either! But whether it makes political sense or not, the perennial cracks in the religious world show that pushing a general religious agenda to bolster institutional support of Jewish law is not the highest value of many in the religious community.

The most recent and bitter division within the non-hassidic haredi community is perhaps only the most blatant display of how much the secular-religious divide has actually become secondary to more and more religious voters in Israel. But is far from being the only one.

The two wings of the national religious world had supported different political parties for several elections before their most recent (and likely temporary) unification as the Beit Yehudi. United Torah Judaism is actually a federation of two wings that were also once at very bitter loggerheads. Even Shas was treated to great derision by its former Ashkenazi handlers once it started becoming too powerful.

Many reasons can be given for this infighting. It could be that religious voters don’t really expect to be able to change the religious character of the state by becoming its leaders. That is to say that many have acquiesced to a situation where there is not much more that can be done within a democratic framework to make Israel more Jewish. It could also be that this is actually not their true first priority.

Whatever the cause, however, it is becoming clearer and clearer that in the same way as the secular parties have too much separating one from another to dictate a national agenda, the same is equally true of the religious. And even as someone who strongly believes that Judaism doesn’t recognize the notion of separation between religion and state, I am not sure that this is completely a bad thing.

The lack of unity is a reflection of an ultimately pluralistic religious worldview that is part and parcel of normative Judaism. (Not to be misunderstood, I don’t mean to include any and all perspectives simply because Judaism recognizes the legitimacy of more than one approach.) In a complex and diverse society, multiple religious viewpoints allow for more Jews to relate to Judaism. And ultimately that relationship or its lack will probably have more of an impact on the character of Israeli society than any governmental decisions.

But there is something else as well. As has been the case in the past, so into the foreseeable future Israel will continue to be a mixed society. So long as this is the case, both sides of the religious-secular divide must understand that they have no choice but to keep the interests, beliefs and preferences of the other in mind. If disunity on both sides of the divide helps to promote that, then that is a blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Francis Nataf is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker. He is the author of the Redeeming Relevance series on the Torah and of many articles.