Close to 90 Modern Orthodox rabbis and educators, many of them prominent names in the religious Zionist community, have issued a fierce denunciation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for initiating a move that could bring loyalists of racist rabbi Meir Kahane into the Knesset.
“The prime minister has a legitimate desire to win victory for his bloc in a hotly contested election,” they wrote in a public statement. “However, in this case, the ends do not justify the means. This deal with a detestable group to get them into the Knesset will give a black eye to Israel and its standing in the world as a moral and democratic state. This is truly a lamentable failure on the part of a leader who has focused his life on Israel's security and on strengthening its international standing.”
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The statement was initiated by Torat Chayim, an association of progressive-minded Orthodox rabbis interested in promoting a more compassionate strain of Judaism within the movement. Among the prominent signatories were Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a renowned author and scholar; Rabbi Asher Lopatin, the former president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; and Rabbanit Dvora Evron, among a handful of Orthodox women in Israel certified to rule on issues of halakha (religious law) and director of a prominent Beit Midrash for women.
Many Jewish organizations and movements have voiced opposition to the pact between Habayit Hayehudi and the Kahanists. This is one of the few statements, however, that specifically names and blames Netanyahu for the move.
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Last week, the remnants of the National Religious Party – known in its latest incarnation as Habayit Hayehudi – merged with Otzma Yehudit, a party whose members embrace the racist ideology of the late Kahane and are disciples of his. The party he originally founded, known as Kach, is outlawed in Israel. The alliance was pushed by Netanyahu, who feared that without the Kahanists joining their ranks, Habayit Hayehudi might not reach the electoral threshold, jeopardizing his ability to form a right-wing majority bloc after the April 9 election.
Habayit Hayehudi traditionally receives most of its votes from the Modern Orthodox community. The statement of condemnation, signed primarily by rabbis from the United States, reserves particularly harsh words for those in Israel who are their closest counterparts.
“To our colleagues, Orthodox Rabbis and political leaders of Habayit Hayehudi, we say: Shame on you,” they wrote. “You have betrayed the traditions of religious Zionism of morality, justice and accountability before God by joining with despicable people who violate fundamental principles of the Torah under the cover of claiming to be religious. The excuse that this alliance will only be for the elections is no excuse. The stain of your association with evil will be permanent.”
The statement adds: “The news that you agreed to do this deal in return for being promised two minister's posts by the prime minister, means that you have sold the birthright of religious Zionism and created a Chillul HaShem (desecration of God's Name) in return for a mess of pottage. In doing so, you have directly violated the Torah's injunction ‘do not go hand in hand with a wicked person’ (Exodus 23:2). You have trampled on Isaiah's instruction ‘Zion shall be redeemed by justice and those that return to her [will be restored] with righteousness.’"
This weekend, Rabbi Benny Lau, a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi, took to the pulpit to warn his congregants against voting for Habayit Hayehudi. In words that drew national attention, Lau compared the platform of the Kahanist party to that of the Nazis and offered to resign from his position as rabbi of a well-known Jerusalem synagogue if his congregants felt he had overstepped his bounds.
The alliance with the Kahanist party has split the religious Zionist community in Israel.
Torat Chayim was launched about two years ago, around the time Donald Trump was elected. The impetus was the discomfort many Orthodox Jews were feeling with the especially warm embrace the U.S. president had received in their community.
The driving spirit behind Torat Chayim is Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, an author, educator and activist based in Phoenix, Arizona.