Text size

"There is no need to replace the rabbis. One need not listen to them. They were not elected by anyone, so in the political-cultural-public sphere they have the status of public figures like anyone, like you and me," says Prof. Moshe Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan University. "Accordingly, what I say is as good as what any rabbi says."

Are you actually proposing the breadth of academic horizons as a substitute for rabbinical authority?

Kaveh: I am not saying that there is authority contra authority. I am saying that bringing the laws and rules of the synagogue into the Knesset is a great danger. Rabbis will set the rules in the synagogue, in the beit midrash [religious study hall], but not as state rulings. Therefore I say to the religious politicians: Consult with them as public figures; but a party that is subject solely to the opinion of rabbis has no democratic prospect, because it is bringing itself under dual authority. A member of the Knesset who has no authority to decide cannot be a Knesset member. It is my belief that religious Zionism's connectedness to the rabbinate on state matters constitutes a tremendous danger.

Prof. Moshe Kaveh, 62, became president of Bar-Ilan University 10 years ago. He inherited an institution that was psychologically battered after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the assassin, Yigal Amir, was a student at Bar-Ilan and rehabilitated its image. At the end of the last decade he served as chairman of the committee of university presidents.

Kaveh was recently elected to another four-year term as president of Bar-Ilan and is now spearheading the construction of its new campus. He is one of the most important figures in the world of religious education in Israel.

Kaveh is under no illusions that this interview, which contains a frontal assault from him on the senior rabbis of the religious Zionist movement, will pass without harsh reactions. "Of course, there will be criticism, he says. There are trenchant comments here. I do not have the shadow of a doubt that there will be criticism of one kind or another. However, intellectual decency compels one to speak his mind and withstand the criticism. I do so out of love."

The background to Kaveh¹s criticism of the rabbis is the disengagement, of course. He is scathingly critical of the calls by rabbis to soldiers to disobey orders and not to serve, as well as of the promises made by rabbis that the disengagement would never take place. As Kaveh is careful not to name the rabbis he is referring to, a brief guide to the positions taken by them is required. It was prepared with the help of Nadav Shragai, the Haaretz expert on right-wing and settler circles.

To begin with, it is important to clarify the positions of the two rabbis considered to be the spiritual leaders of religious Zionism, former chief rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu. Shapira took the lead in calling on soldiers to refuse orders. Others who issued similar calls were Rabbi Zalman Melamed, head of the Beit El yeshiva, and Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, head of the Elon Moreh yeshiva. (Both yeshivas are in the West Bank.) Eliahu was less clear about refusal to obey orders, and his last declared position was that soldiers should say that they are unable to carry out the evacuation order. But he was the one who promised that the disengagement would not take place, and declared: "It will not happen."

Against this background, it is difficult not to view Kaveh¹s remarks as a direct attack on the authority and the status of rabbis Shapira and Eliahu. Hundreds of pre-draft youngsters recently signed a petition headed "We will not be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces - the army of expulsion and destruction."

The petition, organized by high-school and yeshiva high-school students, states, in part: "I, the undersigned, declare that I will oppose serving as a soldier in the army that expelled Jews from their homes." None of the important rabbis called for refusal to serve in an army that evacuates Jews. This initiative sprang from the grass roots, from 12th-graders, but it is possible that some of the grass-roots rabbis encouraged them.

[A note: Prof. Kaveh often takes conceptual leaps which make it difficult to understand the continuity between his comments, so explanations have in some cases been added, in brackets, to make the subject-matter more comprehensible S.I.]

Defeat by knockout

"All the extremist rabbis who called on soldiers to refuse and those rabbis who said the disengagement would not happen, and said so with enormous confidence that is the destruction of the education of the young generation," Kaveh says. "I called them Sabbatians [referring to the followers of Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century false messiah]. Why Sabbatians? Because prophecy, we know, was given only to fools after the destruction of the Temple. I do not think they are fools. So it is Sabbatian. These extremists actually suffered a defeat by knockout, in the language of sports. People refused [to heed] them. The large, enthusiastic camp, in its pain, in its sorrow, did not listen to them, and I say, blessed be God. Blessed be God. There are those who say we failed¹ because [soldiers] did not refuse orders. I am happy that they were the ones who failed and not religious Zionism ... Those rabbis failed. They were not obeyed. Those people, who are continuing the struggle instead of admitting failure, those rabbis should, out of modesty if nothing else, stop talking."

I would say that they should spend a year in silence. With modesty.

You are speaking as though they were the exceptions, but many rabbis from the religious Zionist movement advocated refusal of orders.

"Ninety percent of the rabbis objected to refusal to obey orders. You ask me how many spoke out and were interviewed? Few. But they are the majority of the rabbis of religious Zionism. I will say something grave: If you are right and you are not that they were the majority of the rabbis of the religious Zionist movement, then religious Zionism has finished its historic role. Because of the impression you are referring to, that the majority of the rabbis [urged soldiers to disobey orders], I want to issue a call in this interview: You who are silent, you other rabbis who think differently, who were against refusing orders before the disengagement, stand up and let yourselves be heard."

The protest against the disengagement should have been nonviolent, Kaveh explains, not only according to the rules of democracy, but also according to Judaism, which imposes restrictions on verbal criticism of the government. "You know, that is forbidden in Judaism. To utter imprecations is against Judaism you shall not revile a chieftain of your people. These extremists violated the rules of democracy, but I want to emphasize that they violated parts of Judaism. Extremist pronouncements against the government must not be uttered. My disappointment is that the [other] rabbis did not condemn them. Not to mention the fact that some of the rabbis also uttered them [the imprecations]."

In contrast to the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], religious Zionism said it is a commandment to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and to distort that, to say that this is a commandment that depends on the situation, is terrible. I did not see any religious person making his prayers conditional on what happens in the government. [The duty] to protect the State of Israel has existed in the Torah sources for 3,500 years. It is impossible to ignore this and to say today that to serve in the IDF is conditional. [Anyone who does this] makes his religiosity conditional on the reality of the situation. Above all, such a person has a lacuna in his understanding of religion ... Is it conceivable that some of the finest people this country has produced, from religious Zionism, will not serve in the IDF? Who will sign off on any such idea? Anyone who would is not worthy to serve in the IDF, because he enters the category of one who dissociates himself from the community² that is, someone who is wicked.

Rabbis who affirm this conditionality are not only false rabbis, they are not only false prophets they are a danger to religion. They can say, do not go to the IDF, study Torah, become a Haredi. That is a great danger. [But] the religion has preserved itself in horrific situations, in indescribable crises across history. It will survive this, too. On condition that it will excoriate rabbis who engendered a hallucinatory vision, false messianism, according to which, if I pray that disengagement will not occur then it will not occur. That is against religion. That is a demand [of God]. It is a chutzpah. Otherwise, what is the meaning of prayer?

There was one sanctified moment, in my view, of a transition from the right and duty of protest in a Jewish democratic state, to the duty to obey, Kaveh recalls. ³It was, if I remember rightly, at midnight on August 17th [when the evacuation began]. The religious person educates himself that there is a certain moment in the week which separates between weekday activity and the restrictions of Shabbat, and he does not even doubt this.

According to Kaveh, there should have been an identical transition from protesting the disengagement to obeying the evacuation order. ³But that sharp transition did not occur. I think that if the evacuation had gone as I said, [if the rabbis] had obeyed at the moment of holiness, they would have gone down in history as [reflecting] the glory of educational success. We were almost there. And there were some like that.

Of the IDF¹s behavior during the evacuation, Kaveh adds: "There is no doubt that it should be awarded all the citations of heroism. We discovered that we have an IDF in a class of its own, a class of its own."

Two messiahs

Kaveh points out that there are messiahs in both camps. In the left-wing camp is what he calls the messiah of peace, which was created after Oslo. "Religious Zionism shut itself up in the messiah of the holy places, with its most important banner being that of settlement and land. That banner, which is legitimate [that is, legitimate when it is one of many banners], atrophied broad segments of Judaism, atrophied part of the religion. This is the danger of religious Zionism, in my opinion, that is its own enemy. It is not the other [the enemy]. Not the other. It knows how to protect itself. But what it does not really know is how to mature into a new reality. If the religious Zionist movement does not produce a moderate leadership, which will wave several banners simultaneously, it will atrophy."

He calls on both sides to understand that their messiahs of utopian peace and of settlement throughout the Land of Israel are a matter for the End of Days, and to connect. Continue with your banners, but lower their height a bit,² so as to define together how to deal with the problems of Israeli society. The distinctive connection between broad religious Zionism and broad general, even secular, Zionism that is the challenge.

There are many in the religious Zionist movement who think the conclusion to be drawn from the disengagement is that they and the secular population have nothing in common.

In the Pesach Haggadah, who is called wicked? Only one person: the one who removes himself from the community. Religious Zionism and general Zionism have more in common than may appear to be the case ... What they share is tremendous. Tremendous. Both of us were pleased that Amos Oz received the Goethe Prize, right? He is a writer whom every cultured person reads. We all have a high regard for culture ... So if the differences bother the extremists so much, let them remove themselves from the community, both in this camp and the other camp ... They will be the other.¹ They will disengage from most of Zionism. They will be excoriated by the majority of the public. Religious Zionism, I assume, will shed the extremists naturally.

Continued...