"Most of the communities in Latin America and a large portion of French Jewry regard Rabbi Ovadia Yosef as the leading Jewish figure of our time. That's a fact, so why shouldn't I recognize it?"
That is how Eliezer Sheffer, a veteran National Religious Party functionary and the moving spirit behind the Orthodox General Assembly (OGA) currently convening in Jerusalem, explains why he invited the Shas rabbi last night to what was considered the keynote event of the convention.
That explanation from Sheffer, who is chairman of the World Zionist Organization's Center for Spiritual Services in the Diaspora, sheds light on his willingness to crown Rabbi Ovadia with the highest rabbinical title, Maran, in the official OGA program. National religious circles generally reserve this title for Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook (d. 1936), the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine.
There were those in Sheffer's religious-nationalist circles who raised their eyebrows at the invitation - including rabbis. But he stuck to his guns. On Shabbat, he invited Shas chair Eli Yishai and some of his colleagues, to deliver addresses to the audience. Shas ministers, their wives, children, aides and many guards, seemed to crowd out the MKs from the NRP and their rabbis, who also spoke during the Shabbat. Dozens of Chabadniks, with their black hats, and other Haredi activists invited to the event, gave the whole event the feel of an ultra-Orthodox happening.
It was during his fire and brimstone - but somewhat shallow - speech on Shabbat that Health Minister Nissim Dehan made remarks that seemed to belittle the horrors of the Holocaust compared to the disaster of historical assimilation by Jews over the centuries in the Diaspora. His speech - which was not recorded or taken down in writing at the time - was presented on Saturday night in the media in a particularly negative light. Some saw that incident as proof that not all the NRP functionaries and sympathizers at the OGA were ready to accept, like Sheffer, the massive Shas participation at the event, nor the Shas leaders' somewhat unpolished style of speech.
Sheffer not only brought Shas, but also Agudath Yisrael. The Porush's - father Menachem and son Meir - attended. MK Ya'acov Litzman, head of the Knesset Finance Committee, is due to attend. Yesterday, Yisrael Eichler, editor of the Belz hasidim's journal, debated Rabbi Nahum Rabinowicz, head of the Ma'ale Adumim Yeshiva, on the rights and wrongs of Zionism and modernity. And it all happened under the auspices of the WZO.
"The important thing," says Sheffer, "is that our sign hung over the dais, and Eichler stood under it and spoke. He wasn't deterred from attending, and I wasn't deterred from inviting him." Those who were deterred were the Lithuanians of Degel Hatorah, but there are cracks in that wall, too, says Sheffer.
"What's really important," he went on, "is that 60 percent of Jewish education in the former Soviet Union is provided by Chabad, and much of the rest by other Haredi organizations." He noted that tycoon Lev Levayev, himself Orthodox and a guest of honor at the event, "brings hundreds of youngsters [from there] to Israel. Religious Zionism only has one school there."
The OGA, deliberately dubbed as such to parody, or perhaps compete with, the GA, the annual General Assembly of the U.S. Jewish federations, highlights two key trends, seemingly contradictory, that affect Orthodox life both in Israel and overseas: the phenomenal growth of the Haredi sector which now threatens to dominate the modern-(Zionist)-Orthodox - and the blurring of the divisions between the modern-Orthodox and the Haredim.
Rabbi Ovadia was once asked about his attitude toward Zionism. "What's Zionism?" he shot back. "What? I'm not a Zionist? Of course we're Zionists." The ideological divisions have been eroding for years. The WZO was perceived as one of the last bastions that the Haredim would never be allowed to enter - not that they'd want to. But even that bastion is being breached by the new zeitgeist.
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