The multi-cycle election process has been sobering in many ways. It has taught me about today’s Israel, about our collective state of consciousness and more than anything about the state of Judaism in Israel today. Here are the bad news.
Religious Practice Trumps Morality
At the heart of it all is the issue of the moral fabric and standing of the State of Israel. Prayer for leaders and judges is an important part of our daily prayer. Recited thrice daily, we pray during the Amida prayer for the establishment of judges and for proper leadership. Where are the concerns for proper moral leadership in the present political reality? How much are these seen as religious concerns proper?
The sad news – religious voices, as represented by political parties, do not even consider this an issue. With the exception of rare lone voices all religious parties, and their respective rabbinic leadership, have rallied behind Netanyahu. Graft, corruption, dissention, spreading hatred, engaging in lies, dirty campaigning – none of this ever comes under religious scrutiny. It is as if Torah voices have nothing to say about any of this.
The reason for this is that “the right” is perceived as more supportive of the flourishing of religious life. The culture of state-sponsored Yeshivot and the possibility for advancing religious legislation have created a “natural partnership” between the religious, Zionist and charedi, and the nationalist right wing parties. This process is detrimental to Judaism. It ends up redefining it, in line with nationalist concerns and at the expense of fundamental moral concerns. If “morality precedes Torah”(derech eretz kadma letorah) were the guideline, and if the kabbalistic teaching of midot (moral attributes) preceding mitzvot (ritual performance) were adopted, things would have been different. The cost of the “natural” partnership is the emergence of a Judaism that prioritizes ritual over morality. This undermines spiritual wellbeing of the State and of Judaism itself.
Religion, thus constructed, is totally devoid of any prophetic dimension. It cannot apply the criticism of biblical prophets to ruling powers. It cannot offer a moral vision for society. Ultimately, it cannot see beyond itself. Its own self-survival is that of a community of faithful, rather than of a people, whose very existence hinges on its moral integrity.
Huddling Up Against the Enemy
In the process, religious mentality becomes increasingly a matter of us vs. them, rather than a concern for the collective. Survival as a group leads to identification with a camp, and members of the other camp are cast as the enemy. First there was Lapid, the arch-villain, leading to financial cutbacks in support for the ultra-orthodox sector. Due to Lapid and planned rotation, Blue and White could not be considered a partner. Nothing changed when Lapid dropped his bid for premiership. All who were “not- Bibi” remained the enemy. The matter is particularly pronounced in relation to Liberman, who is the current arch-villain in Haredi circles, the man who is to blame for it all. This mentality, a kind of political-ghetto mentality, led to the huddling up together that is the “block”, that has formed around Netanyahu. Under normal circumstances, such that prevailed here for seven decades, political negotiations would lead to a give and take that would result in some kind of coalition agreement. The rules of the game change when legitimacy and enemy are redefined. The religious parties project a mentality of othering that turns legitimate voices into enemies.
The expressions of this mentality are painful and contrary to halacha. The mockery, abuse and lack of dignity that haredi websites have expressed towards Ganz are unjustifiable by any halachic, moral or Jewish standards. They are made possible only when a mentality of othering and self-protection defines what it is to be religious. After the failure of successive bids to gain a majority, some lone voices in the haredi community have called such practices into question. But the majority of haredi publicists apply mockery to a legitimate political candidate, defying all standards of halachic decency in human relations.
Legislation or Dialogue
“Haredi” and “power” are a potentially poisonous cocktail, as are state-sponsored religion and politics. The specific application of this truism relates to the fundamental approach to handling issues of social dispute in Israel. Religion is a contentious issue, in fact – a divisive issue. Religious parties have become used to settling divisions by applying political power through legislation. Rallying behind “king Bibi” is part of a deeper mentality, that advances a social vision through political alliances and legislation. There is no problem with othering and its attendant mockery, because the outcome will be political majority and implementation of the correct side in the public debate. The problem, however, is that there is no debate, no listening, no appreciation for the points made by the other. Liberman, or Lapid, are demonized, and any valid point they may have, in terms of the broader image of Jewish society, is not something to be listened to, engaged, a basis for compromise. The famous Medan-Gabison covenant hasn’t even made it to the threshold of political awareness. There is no civil debate that considers the multiple voices in Israeli society and seeks a path forward. Religion rules by political strength.
Huddling up together requires its justifications. Naturally, rabbinic authorities, councils representing the different religious constituencies, are a major part of providing authority. But so are prophets, not the kind that provide moral critique, but fortune tellers. One of the most amazing phenomena on the sidelines of elections are the many voices that purport to predict the future, on religious grounds. An anonymous kabbalist publishes election outcomes in advance. (Is this spin? Regardless, he was wrong). A named Chabad rabbi provides insights from the Torah that confirms, yes indeed, Bibi’s upcoming victory. Signs abound. As it turns out, they are all false prophecies, or so it seems.
Actually, the power of prophecy seems to have shifted from the religious to the new agers. These seem to be spot on with their predictions. Is this a sign that organized religion must give way to New Age? Does it teach us how careful we must be with our self-interested fortune telling? The self-assuring prophetic industry has failed, as has the candidate of the religious camp.
The Price to be Paid
This reality will exact a price from religion and its adherents. If things unfold as it looks at present, the legislative pendulum is about to swing the other way. Many of the public expressions of life in Israel will suffer. Many faithful will suffer. Others will rejoice, liberated from some form of religious oppression, with which they do not identify. In the absence of true societal dialogue, the pendulum swing is inevitable. The religious response can be one of two. The more common response will likely be further huddling up and projection of the other as enemy. Some, hopefully more than some, will use this as an occasion for self-examination. For the religious, this moment of loss is an opportunity for purification. There is another way of being religious, while being open to the other, receptive, dialogical, accommodating, affirming unity, avoiding dissent, relying on relations, rather than on power. There is a word for it all – humility. With humility comes vision, understanding and ultimately the kind of Holy Spirit that is needed to cleanse and guide, not only the religious camp, but all of Israel.