J.J. Goldberg

The Israeli Rabbis' Mustard Wars, or Who You Callin' 'Neo-Reform'?

By J.J. Goldberg

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Things are getting hot along one of Israel’s most important religious fault lines. No, it’s not Haredi vs. secular or Orthodox vs. Reform. It is a rancorous and seemingly unbridgeable rift within Religious Zionism, roughly the same territory that Americans call Modern Orthodoxy. As in America, Orthodox liberals in Israel have been on the defensive for years, fighting a rightward drift commonly known as Haredization. In the past few weeks the feuding has gotten intense. It’s too early to tell which side is winning.

As background, it’s important to know the doctrinal issues that divide Religious Zionism from Haredi Orthodoxy. There are two main ones. One, shared with American Modern Orthodoxy, is a moderate, tolerant religious thinking that willingly adjusts itself to modernity and cooperates with non-Orthodox movements. The other is an embrace of Zionism and the Israeli state as an expression of divine will rather than a challenge to it.

Over the past 15 years, though, a wing of Religious Zionism has grown suspicious of the state of Israel for betraying, as it were, the land of Israel. Hard-core pro-settler zealots have turned increasingly toward a more rigorous, insular religious practice, in many ways closer to the Haredi wing than the Modern.

Historically, the political party of Religious Zionism was the National Religious Party, known in Hebrew MiFlaga Datit Leumit, or MaFDaL for short. The hard-line faction is known as the HaRedi Dati Leumi bloc, or HaRDaL for short. Originally it was a joke: Hardal is Hebrew for mustard. Now the name is borne with pride.

In recent weeks the fight has gone from disagreement to ugly name-calling. In July, one of Religious Zionism’s most outspokenly progressive rabbis, Yuval Sherlow, head of the Hesder military yeshiva in Petah Tikva, took a series of groundbreaking steps, announcing the launch of a women-friendly Orthodox synagogue, permitting single women over 35 to pursue single motherhood and allowing betrothed blind men to touch their intended. The rulings came against the background of an upcoming convention of the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization Kolech, which is pushing for ordination of women as Orthodox rabbis.

In response, a prominent Hardal rabbi, Yehoshua Shapira of the Ramat Gan Hesder yeshiva, attacked unnamed liberals as “neo-Reformers.” He didn’t named Sherlow, but nobody was fooled. No less important, the aging former chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu accused the progressives of “kowtowing to women.” Eliyahu is often called the spiritual patron of the Hardalim, and his word is law in many parts of the settler and pro-settler movement.

In late July, open war was declared. A group of Hardal rabbis announced a boycott of the Lifshitz Teachers College in Jerusalem, the leading teacher-training college for Modern Orthodox elementary and high schools. The charge: The college’s incoming president, Professor Shmuel Glick, was affiliated with Conservative Judaism. Glick is in fact on the faculty of the Schechter Institute, the Jerusalem affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which is indeed a Conservative institution. The Lifshitz board had chosen Glick because the Education Ministry ordered it to have an academic with the rank of professor at its head. After the Hardal threat, which would devastate the school’s future enrollment (and budget), the board backed down and canceled Glick’s contract.

Lifshitz plans to reopen in the fall without a qualified academic head and will count on Hardal-leaning Knesset members to prevent decertification. Rightist politicians say they are planning legislation to broaden academic standards and make rabbinical-court judge an acceptable equivalent to professor.

The fight has also erupted in the Knesset, where feuding has broken out between and within the Hardal and Modern wings — and, again, the Moderns are on the ropes. More about that in an upcoming post.


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