How Politics Is Destroying Israeli Rabbis' Authority

Israel Harel
Israel Harel
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Lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party.
Lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Israel Harel
Israel Harel

Shortly before the last general election, in March, lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich came up with a brilliant marketing ploy that belied that truth. He decided to rename his party – National Union-Tekuma – calling it Religious Zionism.

Many viewed this as a deception. The religious Zionist bloc – or more accurately, movement, which is also known as the “knitted kippa bloc” – is a large one, encompassing diverse religious and political views. Prof. Asher Cohen, who studies its sociological and political structure, estimated its (growing) power at 14 to 16 Knesset seats. Smotrich’s party, which won six, thus represents less than half of it.

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Alongside (or above) the party, this industrious lawmaker also set up a rabbinical organization: The Rabbis of Religious Zionism. Rabbis who get involved in politics do not necessarily comply with the adage of our sages, according to which “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.” Nevertheless, their inroads into the political arena, where their reputation and their authority have suffered, is legitimate.

What is not legitimate is the use of the brand "The Rabbis of Religious Zionism." The correct term would be “religious Zionist rabbis.” We have a right to expect rabbis, even political ones, to behave differently from ordinary religiously observant politicians. After all, there are other religious Zionist rabbis, including great Torah scholars and heads of yeshivas that are no less magnificent than the yeshivas that are headed by rabbis Haim Druckman, Elyakim Levanon and Dov Lior.

Ever since the new government was formed, the rabbis and political hacks of the Religious Zionism party have denounced it frequently. In their most recent sally, they accused it of promoting “a series of laws that endanger the essence of the state and alter its identity.” If these laws are passed, “Israel will cease to be a Jewish state and become a ‘state of all its citizens,’” they charged.

The bulk of their anger was expended over the “reforms” proposed by Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana of kashrut, conversion, the structure of the Chief Rabbinate, the religious councils and the rabbinical courts. “The entire public,” Arutz Sheva quoted one as saying, “is uniting against the government – both the religious Zionist ‘knitted kippa’ community and a long list of other groups.”

But the truth, dear rabbis, is the diametric opposite of what you claim. These reforms may well deprive groups seeking to abolish the Jews’ nation-state of much of their ammunition.

The politicization of religion and the abuse of people who use the rabbinical courts, the religious councils and the kashrut industry are the main reasons why large parts of society want to separate religion and state – a process that could indeed bring us closer to the day when the state would no longer be a Jewish one. Only satisfaction with the religious services provided by the state could moderate the hard feelings and even revulsion that many people, including in the religious Zionist community, feel toward what goes on in the state’s rabbinical establishment.

Rabbi Druckman has experienced this harsh reality personally. The chief rabbis refused to call him “rabbi,” disqualified his conversions and belittled the religious Zionist Torah world. Yet today, Druckman and his colleagues, who have also been insulted and disqualified, stand like a bulwark alongside the people who did this to them. After all, they know how deeply politicized the appointments of municipal and neighborhood rabbis are – a fact that drives many people away from getting married in accordance with Jewish law. They know how widespread kashrut fraud is and how deep the rot runs in many religious councils, problems that undermine the provision of religious services to the few people who still use them.

And yet, despite all this, the people who call themselves The Rabbis of Religious Zionism have come out swinging against these desperately needed corrections.

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