Saluted for Good Intentions, Demonized for Failure

Five days before the disengagement, rabbis Yuval Cherlow and Shai Peron, the heads of the Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva, were invited to meet with Ariel Sharon. The two raised the issue of compensation for the evacuees during their meeting with the prime minister. While they agreed on a series of additional benefits for the evacuees, their initiative - to their surprise, says Cherlow - was met with sharp criticism in the Religious Zionist community.

"Our view was that it was necessary to cooperate with the government," he says. "But immediately after the meeting with the prime minister, we were attacked by our fellow rabbis, who said things like, 'who goes to speak with the hangman?' and 'who cooperates with the gravedigger?'"

Who were these friends and colleagues who reacted this way? Cherlow is unwilling to say. "Considering the magnitude of the destruction, violent language and extremism are expected," he says. But he has no intention of leveling accusations. Cherlow may be trying to walk between the raindrops, but that doesn't mean he's not getting wet.

His statement against refusing orders before the disengagement, for example, aroused bitter reactions among the religious public. The attacks on him were nothing compared to cries like "traitor" suffered by Yonatan Bassi, the head of the Disengagement Administration. Bassi was even forced recently to leave his kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, because of harassment by some of the kibbutz members. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of intolerance has affected Cherlow as well.

"The price of intolerance is a split, a division and a loss of power," Cherlow says. "Religious Zionist society began its crash course even before the disengagement [began]."

He enumerates a series of "internal tempests" that caused a split based on the difference between the Hardali (Hardal is an acronym for ultra-Orthodox national Zionists) philosophy and the classical concept of Torah and labor.

The differences in approach came to the fore on issues such as religious feminism, the approach to culture and art and the attitude toward the Internet. "In general, the split is a result of the encounter between religion and post-modernism," he says. "Against that background, events such as the disengagement, Amona and the question of refusing orders created a real rift."

The signs of the split, says Cherlow, are a leadership crisis, a division of political power (nine MKs who belong to four parties), the decline of the National Religious Party, the disappearance of the education networks of the religious public school system, and the decline of the national religious newspapers, such as Hatzofeh and Nekuda, while dozens of parshat hashavua (weekly Torah portion) leaflets and newspapers are taking their place.

"Both Yonatan Bassi and Bentzi Lieberman [who resigned from the leadership of the Judea and Samaria Regional Council after his call to resist resorting to violence during the disengagement caused a rift between him and the public - T.R.] paid a high price for their stance," he says. "I regret what happened to them."

However, Cherlow totally rejects the thesis of Yehuda Ben Meir, who says there is a "witch hunt" in Religious Zionism in the wake of the disengagement.

"I don't blame the extremists. It's their nature to be extreme. I blame the silent mainstream, which allows the injustice to take place. Their silence is costly, because people have already paid a price as a result of it."

He is less forgiving of the "theological concept" that developed in anti-disengagement circles and gained popularity on Internet forums frequented by young Religious Zionists.

Those who subscribe to this approach, which in religious jargon is called "measure for measure," believe that anyone who had a part in the disengagement has been the victim of divine punishment. That is how they explain the downfall of many public and political figures, whether as a result of illness (Sharon), legal intervention (Moshe Katsav, Haim Ramon, Ehud Olmert) or some other reason (Bassi).

"Now police chief Moshe Karadi has also suffered, and that is supposed to be clear proof of the argument," he says cynically. "I reject that from a religious point of view. To enlist the Shekhina [the Divine Presence] in order to support or oppose your political opinion? That is manipulative.

"What is hiding behind this is an entire theology of a war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. Like the Essenes, these speakers also claim that until all of society sees the light, we will live in our sect, with our own internal language and according to our rules of behavior, and for example, we will advocate refusal of orders and disengagement from society. In the end they will be spewed out like the Essenes."

Like many others, Cherlow believes that this is "a loud fringe element," but unlike prevailing opinion, he does not see the negative influence of the extremists as a marginal phenomenon. "Young people, by nature, see the world in black and white, and are excited by such theories. It's very dangerous to take these energies and use them. The question that disturbs me today is whether it is possible to divert this energy and to harness it for a good purpose."

When discussing the disengagement, Cherlow is careful to speak of "expulsion." In 2005, when he spoke to his students at the hesder yeshiva about what was permissible and what was forbidden in connection with the disengagement, he said that "some of the government's behavior is wicked."

Is Bassi also among the wicked? "I accept the logic in the approach that a wicked person must be banished from the community," he replies. "But segments of the religious public are now in a rush to define who the bad guy is in the story."

Cherlow explains that in Judaism, ostracism is a very serious punishment that dates back to the Second Temple period.

"Ostracism is a tool for a society that lacks judicial authority. A Jewish community that lacked constitutional autonomy would take this step." His explanation reinforces the feeling this community is becoming increasingly insular.

Cherlow says that Bassi's act was heroic. "After all, he tried to do the impossible. On the one hand, he tried to convince the people in Gush Katif that if there was to be a disengagement it should be done cooperatively.

"On the other hand, he tried to convince the government to carry out the disengagement in a manner that would most benefit the evacuees. I saluted him for the attempt, but he didn't succeed. The government didn't provide him with the proper tools, and because of his failure, he turned into a demon."

Cherlow, who met with Bassi before the disengagement, is convinced that he took on the job, because he saw it as a mission. The religious public is ungrateful to Bassi, he says.

"There are many people who owe him a great debt," says Cherlow. Like many opponents of the disengagement, he places most of the responsibility for the fate of the Gush Katif residents since the exit from Gaza on the government. "The government carried out the expulsion with efficiency, determination and sensitivity, but nobody was waiting for them when they crossed the Kissufim checkpoint and turned east."

Nevertheless, Cherlow admits that their decision not to cooperate with Bassi only hurt them. "I blame myself for not realizing sooner that they should cooperate with the government," he says. He claims that at first he agreed with the residents of Gush Katif, who preferred not to cooperate with the Disengagement Administration.

His viewpoint changed when the Knesset passed the Evacuation-Compensation Law. "According to my ideology, the country decided at that point about its future. Therefore I began to realize that it was necessary to cooperate." Then why didn't he support Bassi? "It was difficult to give formal support to someone who represented the government," he explains.

Cherlow, who was born in 1957, is one of the young rabbis in the Religious Zionist community who has also made a name for himself in the secular world. This is due, in part, to his extensive public activity. Cherlow is the most prominent of the rabbis of the Tzohar association, which aims to serve as a bridge between the secular and religious communities. One of the main activities of the organization, of which he was a founder, is performing marriage ceremonies for secular couples free of charge. He also expresses himself often in the media about current events.

Cherlow grew up in a national religious home in Herzliya Pituah. In the 1960s, he explains, this Herzliya suburb did not yet connote wealth and prestige. He describes his family as "mainstream religious, almost boring." The Torah study track he chose, first in the Netiv Meir yeshiva high school in Jerusalem and later in the Har Etzion yeshiva in Gush Etzion, eventually led him to the rabbinate.

As has happened frequently in Religious Zionism, he became more right-wing than his rabbis, Yehuda Amital and Aharon Lichtenstein, and some claim that he is far less liberal than the yeshiva in which he studied.

There is no doubt that Cherlow presents a complex outlook: In contrast to his identification with the Tzohar rabbis and a moderate approach, he has a surprisingly conservative outlook on intimate relations or religious feminism. On the other hand, he paved the way for a more accepting attitude toward homosexuality in religious society.

Rabbi Yoel Ben Nun was one of his teachers at Har Etzion. Ben Nun brought about a revolution in the yeshivas and introduced Bible studies into the Jewish studies curriculum. He also influenced Cherlow on a personal level.

"Rabbi Ben Nun provided an opportunity for an entire generation to become familiar with the Bible. That was a tremendous revolution, because before him, people didn't know how much energy the Bible contained. They studied it through the mediation of commentators or the sages, not as an independent source," says Cherlow.

In his book "Yireh Lalevav" ([God] sees what is in one's heart), to be published soon, Cherlow addresses the role of prophets in interpreting the present.

"When I think about a student's question, 'what would the prophet have said about Yonatan Bassi?' I believe that the prophet would have saluted him for his sincere intentions. But the prophet would not have spared his criticism of Bassi's failure. The most suitable prophet for discussing this issue is Amos, a prophet with social leanings. He would have discussed the question of whether Bassi is the tzaddik (righteous man) or the bad guy in the story."