What kind of country do we live in? You may say a democratic and pluralistic one, or even a progressive one, but I have the feeling that we’re regressing back to the Middle Ages, closing our eyes to what’s happening around us. The dispute between left and right, doves and hawks, only intensified after the Six-Day War. Many will solemnly swear that this is the issue that will determine the fate of this country and its future character. I think that this argument is profound and important. However, I also believe that the more relevant process taking place in Israel is the rising power of religion, part of a general global trend involving all the major monotheistic faiths.
Judaism’s uniqueness lays in the belief in one abstract God, in contrast to the belief in many gods and holy men. The wave of religion now sweeping over the country embodies a new version of Judaism. Since believing in an intangible God is difficult, this new version fosters a belief in, and even a worship of rabbis as a new version of all-knowing soothsayers.
In Ashkenazi communities this worship of rabbinical figures started with the appearance of Hasidism in the 18th century, in which rabbis were seen as God’s emissaries on Earth or as God taking on a human form. One example of this worship is the eating of leftover meals from the rabbi’s plate by his disciples. This is true for the Belz, Gur, Vizhnitz and Sadigura rabbinical dynasties. The independent Chabad branch of Hasidism, with its branches around the world, has turned its rabbi into a true divinity.
In contrast, the widespread Mizrahi Jewish world, traditional and observant, upheld important rabbis and spiritual guides in the Diaspora. Only here did their rabbis become soothsayers and holy men. The deep dispute between the rabbis of Netivot publicly exposed this phenomenon.
Rabbi Yoram Abergil is a holy man in the eyes of his believers. If he says that some questionable gangs in the south are followers of the Torah, no one will doubt him. The cult surrounding rabbis Abergil, Abuhatzeira, Ifargan (the “X-Ray Rabbi”) and Pinto is based on the belief that they are the sole sources of authority, rather than the state and its legal apparatus.
I knew the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef well, when he was Israel’s chief rabbi. Many people respected him and looked forward to his weekly sermons at the Porat Yosef yeshiva. The cult that was built up around him with the establishment of Shas served political, not religious ends. When he died, many secular people felt contrite over their disparaging attitude toward pilgrimages to the graves of the righteous or beliefs in charms, blessings and curses dispensed by some of these rabbis. This, they claimed, was divisive and only enhanced the loyalty of these believers to their rabbis.
I’ve always respected people who believe. I’ve often met with leading rabbis. However, in recent years we are witnessing the rise of an extreme religious society which holds at its center the worship of some rabbi instead of the worship of God.
The struggle over the nature of this country will not be determined only by an agreement with our neighbors. This struggle is also incumbent on anyone who believes in this country and wishes it well. Such people must pose a secular way of life at the center of a struggle for the civil character of the country, while turning to traditional Jewish streams that do not worship an individual, in an attempt to join forces with them. A campaign must be waged to ensure a democratic Jewish state, rather than a “Jewish” one as defined by self-anointed rabbis who hold themselves as almost divine. Secularity in this case means the enhancement of rationality in the process of decision making. If this large camp doesn’t gather its forces and wage a true struggle over values, no political settlement will help, nor will it pass.