Could Gay Rights Tear the Bond Between Rabbis and the State?

The Orthodox religious establishment is incapable of changing at the same pace as the wider Israeli society on issues of women’s and gay rights.

Jerusalem's gay pride parade in 2015.
Jerusalem's gay pride parade in 2015. Emil Salman

I first met Rabbis Yigal Levinstein and Eli Sadan, founders of the first pre-military academy in Israel, just over 25 years ago. It was in the middle of the Gulf War, in early 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles were falling nightly on Israel, and every citizen had been issued with a gas mask, out of fear that the missiles could be carrying a warhead with chemical agents. But the masks couldn’t be worn over beards and the Israel Defense Forces directed every Israeli man to shave and be protected. The entire Haredi community and many in the religious Zionist community stoutly refused and when the air-raid sirens sounded, they either remained maskless or used various contraptions combining plastic bags and the filters removed from the standard masks.

Rabbis Levinstein and Sadan had no hesitation. The IDF’s high command had ordered every man to shave and there was no question that they would comply. There is something about the rather unusual sight of a shaven Orthodox rabbi which conveys an impression of moderation and flexibility. Both Levinstein and Sadan have since regrown their bushy beards but that first impression has abided with me, though I should know better.

Yigal Levinstein, who is now at the center of a public storm over his speech last week in which he described homosexuals as “perverts” and criticized the IDF for working with gay rights NGOs, is not a flexible or liberal rabbi. What distinguishes him and like-minded colleagues from other Orthodox rabbis is his deep belief in mamlachtiyut – a term which can best be translated as national sovereignty. Unlike the Haredi rabbis, who are at best ambivalent to the Zionist enterprise, Levinstein ascribes to Rabbi A. Y. Kook’s teaching that “the state of Israel (is) the base of God’s throne in the world.”

Proponents of mamlachtiyut see the state, even if it is lead by secular politicians and doesn’t abide by Jewish law in all things, as a holy entity and the IDF as the peak of service of God and his sacred state on earth. They were sorely tested 11 years ago by the dismantlement of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, by their holy IDF. Some rabbis abandoned mamlachtiyut following the disengagement; others, such as Levinstein, consoled themselves reasoning that it was the act of a democratically-elected government, and the IDF could not be blamed too harshly for executing the government’s policy. But when the army sends its officer cadets on joint activities with gay youth clubs, it cannot be pinned on the politicians.

For years Levinstein and his fellow academy heads were lionized by the army’s generals for educating a generation of highly-motivated young men who went on to serve in elite units and become officers. But in recent years this attitude has begun to change. Now there is a clash of ideals between the rabbis and the generals, as the army seeks to minimize what it sees as undue influence of rabbis over religious soldiers and officers and at the same time embrace the wider Israeli public. This isn’t just an ideological matter – the army is anxious to boost its annual intake of young men and women as new defense concerns, such as opening the cyberwarfare corps and the growing cost of keeping career officers in the other technological branches, means greater reliance on younger conscripts. Some of these developments are beneficial for the rabbis – such as the growing number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts. Others, including the opening up of more combat roles for women and the army’s attempts to improve relations with groups that hitherto were less likely to join the army, such as homosexual youth, has created this unavoidable clash.

There are of course other underlying reasons for the tension: Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s decision to downsize the military’s rabbinate corps, moving the controversial department for Jewish heritage from the rabbinate to the more secular Education Corps; and of course, the fact that many rabbis have expressed support for Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot and killed a wounded Palestinian attacker in Hebron in March. But it is interesting that none of these issues caused the same kind of backlash, from most of the media and the secular public, as Levinstein’s remarks about homosexuals. It shouldn’t be surprising though that many Israelis are much more scandalized by gay-bashing than they are about racism towards Palestinians.

In a wonderful twist of irony, it emerged yesterday that both Levinstein and the commander of Army Radio, Yaron Dekel, have been summoned to the defense ministry – Levinstein to be told by director general Udi Adam that he must publicly apologize or risk losing the ministry’s cooperation with his academy. Dekel was reprimanded by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman for broadcasting a program on the works of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet.

Which leads us to a deeper quandary. The Israeli public has veered rightward on many political issues over the last two decades, with mistrust of the Palestinians at its highest level, certainly since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin embarked on the Oslo peace process in 1993. On other issues, particularly the role of women and gay rights, the Israeli public has moved in the other direction. To a large degree, this reflects similar trends in the Western world and some religious leaders are beginning to realize this.

Religious belief cannot change its fundamental teachings just because society has changed. Orthodox Judaism is no different in that sense from the more traditional forms of Christianity and Islam. Where they can change is in their PR. Pope Francis is the best example of a religious leader to have internalized the changed landscape. He has altered nothing in the church’s principle of rejection of homosexuality as a way of life, but he has publicly stated that it his not job to criticize people for their own life choices, but God’s job. Many gay rights activists, justifiably see that as a hypocritical position, but it has gained the church some respite in wider society and Francis remains the media’s darling.

Some rabbis, most recently those of the modern Orthodox Bet Hillel group, have adopted a similar approach to that of Francis. They admit that they cannot change the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual relations. But they advocate a position according to which rabbis are commanded to treat each individual with respect and love and accept them as full members of the community. And there’s certainly no reason to treat homosexuals as sick and perverted and, in that respect, differently than straight people who may well be transgressing other biblical edicts on sexuality in the privacy of their bedrooms. And while this will seem to many as a patronizing attitude, it is probably the most you can accept from rabbis who are incapable of “amending” the Torah. It’s certainly preferable to the majority of rabbis who have stuck to either branding gay people as sick perverts or denying they actually exist. They may have stopped short of advocating the arrest and execution of homosexuals, as is the policy in some Muslim countries, but their approach is hardly different.

But there is a deeper issue. The Orthodox religious establishment is incapable of changing at the same pace as the wider Israeli society on issues of women’s and gay rights. Until now, the differences between the staunchly nationalist and religious leadership of the dati leumi (religious Zionist) community have been bridgeable, largely due to the fact that their followers served together in the army with the rest of the sons and daughters of Israel’s Jewish majority. The tension over the attitude toward gay people could be another harbinger of this fraying unity.