As a Reform Jew, I am never happier than when Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders are insulting Reform Judaism. Recently, the ultra-Orthodox world in Israel has been pouring out its anti-Reform abuse at record levels. Needless to say, I have been a very happy man.
In case you missed it, here is a sampling of these Haredi attacks. Moshe Gafni, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, has said that “Reform Jews are a group of clowns” who have “declared war on the Torah.” Israel Eichler, a Knesset member from the same party, has compared Reform Jews to the mentally ill. Not to be outdone, Shas leader Rabbi David Yosef has said the Reform Jews are “not Jewish” and are “literally idolaters.”
These attacks delight me because they demonstrate that Haredi leaders not only take Reform Judaism in Israel seriously, but they fear our growing influence. The hysterical anti-Reform ranting of ultra-Orthodox leaders is a sign of ultra-Orthodox weakness. To be sure, Reform is starting to take root in a meaningful way in Israeli soil. Nonetheless, the Reform movement is modest in size, receives virtually no government support, and has no representation in the Knesset. Why in heavens name would the mighty ultra-Orthodox establishment, representing 10% of Israel’s population, be so obsessed with the “threat” posed by liberal Judaism?
And the answer is that the Haredi leadership is not stupid. Desperate and fanatic, yes, but not stupid. And it knows that the Haredi ghetto is crumbling, that rabbinic control over young people is eroding, and that any Jewish voice that offers a synthesis of modernity and tradition threatens to accelerate this process. Reform Judaism in Israel offers such a voice. So too do Conservative Judaism and various forms of Israeli Orthodoxy that have developed out of the National Religious stream.
Therefore, Trump-like, Haredi rabbis are trying to distract their young people by non-stop attacks on others. Instead of stressing the blessings and authenticity of their own beliefs and way of life, they focus on the shortcoming of others. “Beware of Reform, destroyers of the Jewish world,” they scream. But their attacks are no longer working. The Haredi masses do not care about a pluralistic prayer space at the southern tip of the Western Wall, or a decision by the Supreme Court that allows Reform and Conservative Jews to use government-financed ritual baths. What they do care about is the desperate poverty that their rabbis have forced upon them by forbidding young men to work and by prohibiting all but incidental contact with the outside world.
And the revolt against the rabbinic authoritarians is now in full swing. Calcalist, Israel’s major business newspaper, reported only two weeks ago that 56% of Haredi men are now part of the job market; 13 years ago, that number was 34%. Furthermore, 76% of Haredi women work, and defying specific rabbinic prohibitions, a large number of these women are learning the skills necessary for the job market in academic institutions outside of the Haredi community. And not only that, but cell phones and computers are infiltrating the ultra-Orthodox family, bringing the good and the bad of the modern world and further undermining rabbinic edicts.
Efforts to create a massive Haredi ghetto date backs to 1977. When the rightwing took control of the government from the Labor party, the ultra-Orthodox parties extorted from Menachem Begin a promise to allow unlimited army exemptions for young men who agreed to study full-time in a yeshiva. The result was the first attempt in all of Jewish history to make full-time Torah study the norm for all religiously observant adults. But inevitably, the attempt failed. The great majority of young men are not suited for the rigors of Torah study, and the economic burden imposed upon young families soon became more than the community could bear. Now, after nearly 40 years, the ghetto model is finally collapsing, and young ultra-Orthodox men are finding their way back to the job market and to the world.
In short, the anti-Reform attacks are a compliment to Reform Judaism, but they are also something else. They are a desperate attempt to maintain the radical, unchanging, rigid traditionalism of today’s ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Haredi rabbis say that this is historical Judaism, but it is not; historical Judaism was both flexible and adaptable. Today’s ultra-Orthodoxy is something far more self-serving: a failing effort to preserve rabbinic prerogatives at the expense of Jewish tradition and good sense.
The battle is not yet won, to be sure. In the short term, it will get much uglier, and attacks by Haredi rabbis on Reform, Conservative, and more open forms of Orthodoxy will intensify. But let us have no doubt about the outcome. For Israel, what the future holds—and the sooner, the better—is a messy but pluralistic coexistence, with secular, Orthodox, and non-Orthodox models bumping up against each other in Israel’s chaotic public square. If Israel is to be a modern state and part of the democratic world, this is the only option.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
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