A National Religious Voice of Reason

This public has no political home at the moment. Naftali Bennett was its default choice, just as Yair Lapid was the default choice of the secular middle class, but both politicians turned their backs on the voters.

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One of the sad characteristics of this era is intellectual shallowness that prefers to ignore complex phenomena and refrain from taking a stand. In this context, speakers who take a clear, courageous stand cause surprise and fear.

One such speaker is Rabbi Haim Navon, who teaches, among other places, at Nishmat, the college for religious women. At an event at the college last week, he said that “religious Zionism is disintegrating.” Navon argued that this public no longer has a single, unifying center of gravity, and suffers from many disagreements. He added that in an absurd way, the many points of conflict actually prevent a split into two camps. “The conflict between the national Haredim and their opponents,” he said, “is not over the controversy regarding the proper attitude towards the state and its institutions, and therefore there is no clear line of division.” The result is an atomization into tiny communities.

The national religious public is indeed facing dramatic processes of ideological change that split it into many groups. Equal rights for women, the upheaval in the traditional roles of men and women in the family, the recognition of homosexuals and lesbians, the openness towards other groups in Judaism, and the attitude concerning sexual abuse – each one of these topics causes controversy in schools, synagogues and communities, leading to arguments whose source and motive cannot always be fathomed.

The latest controversy, set off by a letter from Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who warned parents of high school girls not to allow their daughters to be drafted into the IDF but instead to “preserve their sanctity,” is a good example of the split mentioned by Navon. Parents who prefer their daughters not to be drafted aren’t necessarily national Haredim, while the parents who object to a municipal rabbi calling for citizens to rebel against the army – using official stationery of the rabbinate – are not necessarily those who encourage their daughters to do military service.

The women who oppose Eliyahu do so mainly out of feminist values, thus often causing antagonism in their immediate surroundings, and are the same women who are struggling against the decision of Rabbi Haim Druckman to reinstate convicted Rabbi Moti Alon as a yeshiva teacher. Here, too, the controversy is not between the more observant and the “religious-light” groups; national religious community members take their stand on the issue according to their moral viewpoint.

Still, it seems that in his call for unity, a value that has become almost holy for the national religious community, Navon ignores the most important and significant center of gravity for a large public – which supports the state institutions, is generally liberal and well-educated, and hopes to integrate a religious education for its children with modern life and progress.

This public has no political home at the moment. Naftali Bennett was its default choice, just as Yair Lapid was the default choice of the secular middle class, but both politicians turned their back on the voters. The former, despite his high-tech image, allowed the national Haredi extremist spirit to continue to rule the party, while the latter, despite his talk of the mythical, middle-class Riki Cohen from Hadera, has joined in all the rituals of the old politics and economy.

In an ideal world, a new socially-minded, pluralistic party would be established, a party tolerant of all citizens, religious and secular. In Israel’s reality, Navon, a student of the moderate Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, can propose the alternative his teacher offered some time ago. If this public that has had enough of the rule of extremists will really begin disintegrating, Meimad could be re-established with a young leadership and women who seek change, and serve this public and Israeli society as a whole.

Kippa display in a Jerusalem store.Credit: Tess Scheflan

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