Opinion |

In Israel the Age of the Rabbis Is Ending

Smartphones killed the rabbis' power and the internet swept away an entire generation of spiritual hierarchy. When communities’ leaders rely on opaqueness, online transparency kills the legends.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A rabbi visiting the military's Prison 6 in 2013.
A rabbi visiting the military's Prison 6 in 2013.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Israeli media reported extensively this week from the large ultra-Orthodox demonstration in Jerusalem against the conscription of yeshiva students, including disturbing footage of a young woman being violently jostled and verbally abused when she found herself in the midst of 10,000 Haredi protesters. But the really interesting religious protest is the one that didn’t take place.

Over the last two weeks, the Defense Ministry has been ordering the founder and dean of the Bnei David pre-military academy at the West Bank settlement of Eli, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, to attend a hearing over ugly remarks he made about women in the Israel Defense Forces. The ministry is also threatening to withdraw its recognition of the academy if Levinstein doesn't step down. While Levinstein’s colleagues have rallied around him, defending his right to voice his opinions no matter how obnoxious they may be, his thousands of former students have remained silent for the most part.

Founded in 1988 by Levinstein and his colleague Rabbi Eli Sadan, Bnei David has not only produced some 4,000 alumni who went on to serve in the IDF’s elite units, half of them becoming officers, it inspired the foundation of dozens more mechinot pre-military academies across the country. Few educational and religious movements have made a similar impact on Israeli society in recent decades.

The academy in Eli and its imitators galvanized the transformation of the religious-Zionist community into Israel’s new “serving elite.” Not only did they play a central role in motivating the young religious men they educated to replace the kibbutz movement as the main source of the IDF’s combat officer corps, they also fed the narrative whereby the religious Zionists are on their way to becoming Israel’s new leaders.

That this narrative is grossly exaggerated doesn’t detract from the fact that the mechinot are seen by many as the incubators for Israel’s next leaders. So much so that in recent years secular educators have gotten in on the act, setting up their own Eli-style academies just without the religious fervor.

Former students yawn

So why aren’t thousands of young men with knitted kippot taking to the streets to defend their rabbi’s honor? Where are Levinstein’s soldiers? Everyone says Israel is getting more religious and more right-wing, so why is one of the most prominent rabbis of the religious right being put out to dry?

The religious-Zionist movement has in the past brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets to protest the evacuation of settlements. It has the numbers and the spirit.

Would there have been such a silence if a government ministry had dared threaten defunding the yeshivas of the great religious-Zionist rabbis of the previous generation following controversial speeches and there was no lack of those let alone summon them for a hearing?

No way. If Zvi Yehuda Kook, Mordechai Eliyahu or Avraham Shapira had been treated in such a way by a secular defense minister back in the 1980s or ‘90s, thousands would have stood outside the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva and the government would have been on the brink. But there are no longer rabbis of that stature in any community. The age of the great rabbis is over.

For all Levinstein’s influence, his former students won’t rally for him. Many of them don’t even agree with him. The rabbis’ campaign against young religious-Zionist women joining the IDF has been a total failure. In the last five years, the number of religious women joining the army each year has jumped to 2,100 from 900. A poll commissioned this week by Army Radio found that a clear majority, 56 percent of Habayit Hayehudi voters ostensibly these rabbis’ followers are in favor of men and women serving together in the IDF.

One of the most steadfast principles of the religious-Zionist rabbis has always been that the army is for men, while women should undertake civilian “national service” in schools and hospitals where there’s less chance of their being “sullied” before marriage. The rabbis have lost the battle.

The WhatsApp revolution

Similar defeats are taking place in the Haredi communities. For 20 years the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have been waging war on the internet. First they forbade their followers to own computers in their homes. Then they allowed computers but prohibited the flock from going online. But then the internet became available on mobile devices, so the rabbis issued edicts against smartphones.

This didn’t help, and the latest line of retreat has been an attempt to ban the use of instant messaging applications like WhatsApp. It’s yet another losing battle that only emphasizes how the current rabbinical leaders have lost sway over their communities.

Gone are the likes of Eliezer Menachem Shach, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Ovadia Yosef, whose edicts bound entire swaths of the Haredi world. Today’s gedoley ha’dor (greats of the generation) can command the allegiance of no more than a few tens of thousands each niche communities or a Hasidic court at the most.

There is no posek ha’dor (arbiter of the generation) anymore. Just as they might choose a doctor, Haredi Jews can pick and choose and go online for a second opinion. Smartphones killed the rabbis’ power and the internet swept away an entire generation of spiritual hierarchy.

We won’t see another generation of Torah greats shrouded in myth and mystery because every bit of gossip about the rabbis’ foibles and true personalities, which used to be known only to a privileged few, now finds its way onto social media. In the secular world the internet may breed fake news, but for communities whose leaders have traditionally relied on opaqueness, online transparency kills the legends.

No, Israel isn’t becoming more religious. It’s actually becoming more flexible as the lines that used to divide among the secular, traditional, religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox and clearly demarcate the sects and streams have become blurred. The media as usual is finding it hard to drop its old habits. Levinstein’s speeches still garner headlines and a demonstration in Jerusalem gets airtime.

Meanwhile, religious-Zionist women and Haredi men are defying the rabbis and joining the army in increasing numbers. Secular Zionism may have given way to Israeli Judaism, but it’s a DIY Judaism and every rabbi for him (or her) self.

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