A surprising development occurred a few months ago behind the scenes in the world of Israel's premilitary religious preparatory centers. Several preparatory center heads met with Rabbi Zvi Tau, head of the Har Hamor yeshiva in Jerusalem, to hear his views on the issue of refusing to obey the order to evacuate a Jewish settlement. The directors of two major centers, Rabbi Eli Sadan of the community of Eli and Rabbi Rafi Peretz of Atzmona, are among Tau's staunchest disciples and operate in accordance with his directives. Their prominence has influenced the heads of other centers and, because of that prominence, Tau's position on the above issue has great bearing on all the centers.
Prior to the meeting, all Tau's students believed he firmly backed the concept of the Jewish state's sovereignty in this question: Although firmly opposed to any withdrawal from any part of the Holy Land, he also opposed any undermining of the state's sovereignty, especially any undermining of the Israel Defense Forces' authority. Thus, students at the Eli center could sometimes be heard saying, "If we have to, we will even evacuate our own parents."
However, the meeting with Tau turned out to be very surprising. He protested the "misunderstanding" surrounding his position: Explicit refusal to obey the order to evacuate a settlement was unthinkable; however, students at the centers would have to make it clear to their commanding officers that they "were incapable" of obeying such an order. Following the encounter, Sadan held a meeting with his students at Eli. He informed them that his previous directives had been mistaken and then issued new ones.
The change in Tau's position on the refusal-to-obey-orders issue has far-reaching implications. Rabbinical authority, which was supposed to counterbalance recent rabbinical rulings favoring refusal, is now encouraging a "gray" form of refusal.
Like many of Tau's close associates, Sadan did not want to be interviewed for this article, simply saying that the description of the new directives on refusal was "inaccurate." Rabbi Peretz from the Atzmona settlement, who did not participate in the encounter with Tau, tried to offer a moderate interpretation: "The bottom line is that, even according to his view, refusal is not an option." He also hinted that, on this matter, apparently unlike Sadan, he would not follow his teacher's instructions: "We have an additional rabbinical ruling, the one issued by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner [Aviner has unequivocally ruled against any form of refusal - Y.S.]. In any event, we are instructing our students that, ultimately, after all the tears and crying and pain, none of them will say, `I refuse to obey that order.'"
How has Tau managed to remain anonymous in the eyes of the general public while maintaining such immense power? One of the factors in that power is the seemingly inconspicuous yeshiva he heads: Har Hamor, which is considered today the authentic Mercaz Harav - that is, the yeshiva that genuinely expresses the outlook of both the yeshiva that was the cradle of the Gush Emunim movement, Mercaz Harav, and the late head of that yeshiva, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. The rabbis at Har Hamor (Yehoshua Zuckerman, Yaakov Levanon, Oded Wolanski, and the Sternberg brothers, Ami and Moti) and especially Tau himself were Rabbi Kook's most loyal disciples. In contrast, Mercaz Harav has been taken over by ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Avraham Shapira, whose sole connection with Mercaz Harav is the fact that his wife is a member of the Kook family.
The second factor in Tau's clout is Har Hamor's position as the leader in an entire empire of institutions, which include the Hebron Upper yeshiva (Hayeshiva Hagevoha), Mitzpeh Ramon yeshiva, Eilat Upper yeshiva, premilitary preparatory centers in Eli and Atzmona, Seminary (Midrasha) for Women in the Old City of Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, Binyan Shalem Organization (the conservative answer offered by the female members of the Kook family to the religious feminist group, Kolekh), and, of course, Har Hamor itself, established only seven years ago because of a rift within Mercaz Harav and which today has 400 students. Little wonder that someone who is familiar with the subject defines Tau as "the religious-Zionist rabbi with the largest following today."
The schism in 1997 was the climax of a 15-year process that began with Kook's death in 1982. The first round was a mistaken tactical decision taken by Tau, whose concern with spiritual matters caused him to blunder in the face of rival Shapira's political might. One of Mercaz Harav's students at the time, who later joined Shapira's entourage, relates that, a few days before his death, Kook proposed to Tau that, alongside Shapira, he be the second authorized signer of Mercaz Harav's checks. However, notes this former student, Tau "could not think about fiscal matters with his revered teacher on his deathbed." When Tau decided, after Kook's death, to be the second signatory, it was already too late. Shapira refused, removing him from every position of power at Mercaz Harav. Tau stopped receiving a salary from Mercaz Harav and for many months was forced to teach his classes in his own home.
Tau and his loyalists suffered this humiliation and many others with remarkable grace because of their loyalty to Mercaz Harav. However, seven years ago, the conflict erupted in full force over an unanticipated issue: Shapira's plans for creating, in the yeshiva's framework, a training college for teachers of Jewish studies. Tau and his followers regarded the idea as tantamount to the "placing of a graven image in the Temple of Jerusalem" and were unwilling to maintain silence over this issue. In their view, all of the yeshiva's operations must be conducted in "absolute sanctity" and no secular content must be allowed to enter its portals.
Dr. Yishai Rosen-Zvi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, considers the controversy to be the "transformation of a marginal issue into a metaphysical event." In the manifesto issued by Tau and his associates, the innocent teacher training institute is described as a "calamity in the world of Torah." In the view of Kook's disciples, Mercaz Harav is at the very least the heart of the Jewish nation, if not the heart of the entire world. Mercaz Harav's desecration is thus a blow to the Jewish nation's very soul. One of Tau's closest associates, Rabbi Ami Sternberg, says of Mercaz Harav: "This is where the Jewish people studies, this is where the Jewish people prays."
An intense theological and rhetorical effort was mounted to justify the war against the innocuous teacher training institute, which had already received applications from many of Tau's own students. In retaliation, Shapira suspended all Mercaz Harav rabbis who had attacked the institute. This measure led to the official schism at Mercaz Harav and to the establishment of Har Hamor (whose name incidentally is also the Hebrew acronym for "Successor to Mercaz Harav").
The schism and rhetoric generated over this issue faithfully express Har Hamor's chief feature: religious zealotry. Politically, its line is a nearly impossible merger of opposition to any withdrawal from any part of the Holy Land with opposition to any undermining of the sovereignty of the Jewish state (at least until Tau's last directives). This approach is founded on a view that extends a sacred status to both the Holy Land and the State of Israel together with all its institutions.
However, Har Hamor is unique in its zealotry on religious and intellectual issues. Har Hamor has become the center for ultra-Orthodox Zionist reaction to the liberal Neo-Religionists. For instance, married women associated with Har Hamor are more stringent in matters of modest appearance than most ultra-Orthodox Jewish women: Wigs are of course out of the question and the general directive favors gray, faded attire.
The Shavei Hebron yeshiva, one of Har Hamor's "subsidiaries," recently created a yeshiva high school with no secular curriculum whatever - in emulation of what is currently transpiring in the ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist Jewish community in Israel. One Religious Zionist rabbi relates that the latest move in this overall trend is to encourage the yeshiva's students to join the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Nahal unit, so that they will come in only minimal contact with female military personnel. Tau's followers are taught to shun all forms of Western culture: newspapers, television, film, and theater. Radio is barely tolerated.
However, the thrust of the religious zealotry is aimed primarily at what is perceived as utter desecration: the introduction of scientific content in sacred studies. For example, Tau devoted his latest booklet of lessons to the fight against the "Bible at Eye Level" (or Down-to-Earth Bible Studies) approach, where biblical narratives and protagonists are presented as real-life situations and characters respectively. An equally intense battle is being waged against the developers of the layered approach to Talmud study at Bar- Ilan University. The tone of the criticism is as caustic as it was in the war on Mercaz Harav. The head of the Shavei Hebron yeshiva, Rabbi Moshe Bleicher, argues that the layered approach is more dangerous than any terrorist attack. Tau attacks all teacher training colleges set up in yeshivas and says that their instructors "have been poisoned and are poisoning others - what they are doing is strictly forbidden."
A young Religious Zionist rabbi regards Har Hamor and its subsidiary institutions as a "religious cult in every respect." They are unwilling to engage in dialogue with any group that has a dissenting outlook. Everything is conducted through the issuing of curses and blackballing. Their cultist character is also expressed in their fanatic ideology, according to which all those who deviate, even slightly, from the "party line" are "idolaters." Even Tau's behavior is cultist. Only his closest associates know his telephone number. He rarely appears in public, except for the weekly lesson he has recently begun to give at a synagogue in Jerusalem's Shaarei Hesed neighborhood. Even the existence of this lesson is kept on a low profile and is transmitted on a word-of-mouth basis among his followers. He transmits his messages on burning issues to a small group of loyalists charged with the task of transmitting is views to the Israeli public at large.
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