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Haredim, Democracy And Women Of The Wall
Mon, 07/01/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

The Haredi Spring is coming to an end — and not a moment too soon. In the recent election in Israel, the majority rose up and called a halt to the process of haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews playing a dominant role in the government coalition while resisting national service. Requirements for army service and incentives to work instead of living on welfare are now being discussed in the Knesset. The haredim have reacted by insisting that their way of life and privileges were sacrosanct and could not be reined in by the democratic process. In truth, they have never seemed comfortable with real democracy.

Ever since the Jewish people, led by a Zionist avant-garde, took power and responsibility for Jewish fate, it was the secular and national-religious together who built the State of Israel. This was done without much haredi help and in the face of significant opposition from them. The non-haredi majority, with their blood, sweat and tears, built a remarkable economy, recreated Hebrew/Jewish culture, and fought off would-be destroyers. In 1967, they even liberated the Old City and the Kotel. Their children — giving years of their lives in army service and their very lives in battle — paid the staggering price of this accomplishment. Part of this miracle was that Israel was created as a democracy — the most humane and humanly respectful form of political system in the world. The Zionist consensus decreed that Israel would be a Jewish and democratic state — although this system was new to Judaism (hence, new for the Orthodox) and far from prevalent in most of the countries that the pioneers came from.

After 1948, the haredim woke up and joined in the democratic process and were greatly rewarded. The Israeli majority, feeling nostalgia and some guilt for the world lost in the Shoah, and feeling  gratitude and obligation that the stubbornly religious had kept Judaism alive during 2,000 years of powerlessness, supported the then-small haredi communities — financially and culturally— on a vast scale. This included an unprecedented government-financed Torah support/social welfare system that underwrote two-thirds of the haredi men while they studied in yeshiva instead of going to work. The law exempted them from military service as well. In the last several decades the haredim took over the national rabbinate and imposed their values in the religious establishment — to the detriment of women’s rights and to the exclusion of would-be converts. 

Unfortunately, during this period, the haredim did not learn democratic values or prepare to live in a democratic system. On the contrary, they developed an ideology that policy was to be dictated by Torah scholars who were not accountable to public opinion. They preached that the laws of God (defined by their scholars only) should decide the general law — and even should override national law when there was a clash between them. Nor did they internalize that democracy gives full rights to others (minorities, women, foreigners) and that they must honor those rights where they differ from them. Nor did they grasp that ultimately democracy required full respect for others. This entails not only respect for their person but for their right to live differently (in religious matters as in secular). Democracy is predicated on fair sharing of national burdens (such as army service and taxes). Instead the haredim developed a tribal morality that justified taking but did not generate an equal giving back. Taking over the Kotel and turning it into a haredi synagogue to the exclusion of others — highlighted by the recent controversy over Women of the Wall prayer services — was part of this syndrome. At that point, the levers of democracy were being pulled for an undemocratic result.

The ultra-Orthodox surge also weakened the Modern Orthodox affinity to democracy. As the Modern Orthodox came under haredi influence, a yeshivish/ultra Orthodox tendency took over many schools and began to inculcate new values. The ideology of rabbinic hegemony in policy determination spread. The claim of supremacy of halacha (usually interpreted in sectarian fashion) over the law of the land grew strong. The doctrine of the holiness of the land of Israel came to dominate the national-religious party, which became more extreme in its policies. Once the indispensable moderate component of every national coalition, the National Religious party became sectarian, extremist and an outlier. Some rabbis called for discrimination against Arabs in housing — in direct violation of Israeli law. Others called on religious soldiers to disobey orders from IDF — the army of a democratic government — if they were told to evacuate settlers or settlements. The grounds for this ruling was that God required that Israel keep possession of every inch of the holy land of Israel. The worst expression of this tendency was the demonization of Prime Minister Rabin for working for a peace treaty based on territorial compromise. He was assassinated by a radical but many recognized that rabbinic ideological extremism had created a supportive environment for such a terroristic act.

These trends grew in America, too. In recent years traditional law prohibiting cooperation with oppressive governments was invoked by ultra Orthodox groups to forbid reporting sexual abusers to the civil authorities (as required by American law). Modern Orthodoxy followed the haredim in denying the legitimacy of non-Orthodox movements. Even at Yeshiva University, a highly respected rosh yeshiva and decisor, Rav Hershel Schachter (seen as continuing Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik’s halachic teaching in the rabbinical seminary), said publicly that the prime minister of Israel should be assassinated if he dared to give up some section of Jerusalem for the sake of a peace treaty. (He later apologized for the comment.) Recently, Rabbi Schachter was recorded warning against reporting sexual abusers to the authorities (lest they be imprisoned and exposed to harm from anti-Semites).

In both segments of Orthodoxy, democratic norms were increasingly jeopardized. Universal rights were taking second place to tribal versions of halacha.

It is in the context of imposing democratic norms on the haredim that the Women of the Wall issue exploded.

After two decades of passivity and neglect regarding the group’s efforts for equality in prayer, diaspora Jews (or at least its non-Orthodox majority) spoke up and challenged the exclusion of the Women — and, by implication, of all non-Orthodox services — from the Kotel. They argued that this was a violation of their rights under democratic pluralism norms. To his great credit, Prime Minister Netanyahu did what no other prime minister before him had done. He decided to make room at the Kotel for all groups to pray. He wisely chose Natan Sharansky — a Jewish hero who embraces both Israel and diaspora and a strong advocate of democracy — to come up with a plan that recognized the religious rights of non-Orthodox Jews, one that all could live with.  Netanyahu took this step although there will be a political cost for him among the haredi voters who have long supported him. (One hopes that liberal groups in America, who dismiss Netanyahu as a right-wing extremist, will recognize the significance of this action — and seek a more nuanced understanding of all his policies.)

The Women of the Wall fittingly sing “Hatikvah,” with its longing “to be a free people in our land,” at the end of their Rosh Chodesh service. That dream includes full religious freedom. And starting from the Women of the Wall controversy, the Modern Orthodox community hopefully can regain its classic commitment to democracy and religious moderation.  It must renew its covenant with Clal Yisrael, which had been pushed aside as its policies veered toward haredi standards. If all groups cooperate, the government will be enabled to support all forms of Jewish religion. This includes allowing alternative rabbinic courts (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) that will treat women more equitably — in accordance with their right to equal justice.

A decade from now, the haredi violence at the Wall will be recognized as an act of desperation — of clinging to special privilege when the democratic system had decided that it must come to an end for the sake of fairness to all. One hopes that new circumstances may impel the haredim to incorporate democracy into their understanding of Torah. This would include developing a commitment to the whole society and acknowledging an obligation to reciprocal fairness and to free expression of religion — i.e. upholding a democratic culture in which they can compete and contribute.

Such a turn would remove the resentments that cloud the public’s view of haredim. It would allow the great strengths of their community — devotion, family values, chesed (acts of loving-kindness) and mutual help, respect for Torah learning — to be recognized, once they are no longer diminished by self-centeredness and exploitation of others. The Modern Orthodox, too, need to complete the process of integrating Torah and democracy started under Zionism. This evolution was incomplete and was interrupted when the State of Israel was established.  

Such a shift will demand an enormous spiritual and intellectual effort and a lot of growth and self-criticism. But the reward would be a truly Jewish and democratic Israel. When that day comes, even haredim will honor the Women of the Wall for their decades of steadfast piety, devotion to the Kotel’s holiness and persistence in the face of mistreatment. Then Israel’s status as a democracy (unique in that part of the world) will shine forth for all to see.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is the founder of CLAL and a longtime author and thinker on Jewish issues.


Haredim, Israel, Women of the Wall, Zionism

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One cannot continue evading taking a stance, especially when it comes to public issues, and Israel and its future is a public issue, certainly for all Jews. Rabbi Greenberg has taken a stance, and make no mistake, it is a stance taken from within the Torah world by one who loves Torah. Nostalgia just doesn't cut it anymore. The questions involved are too urgent, too serious. Do you side with hierarchical, authoritarian structures, with parochialism and particularlism? Or do you side with a larger Jewish vision? As Yair Lapid has pointed out, no one seriously advances Secular Zionism anymore. Rabbi Greenberg has taken a clear, unapologetic, legitimate, reasoned stance. He is a light in dark times. He cares about the future of Israel, the future of Judaism.

Rabbi Greenberg,

I wonder, who is the audience for this opinion piece? Is it the Haredim? Is it the modern Orthodox? Or is it the non-Othodox who already agree with your sentiments? If it is the latter, for what reason do you want them know that you feel this way? If it is the former, certainly you know that there are better forums in which to address these communities; why would you want to give mussar to them in public, so to speak?

I understand the optimism surrounding R. Greenberg's column.

For a more sober approach, you can see the conversation I had with my father in law Rabbi Leonard Oberstein -- who lives and works in the Yeshiva World -- about the future of the Haredi world.

I am saddened to see a respected thinker like Rabbi Greenberg lump together disparate and untrue claims to blacken the face of the haredi community. The haredi community on the whole, starting with its rabbinic leadership, has come a very long way in airing the issue of sexual abuse and introducing new norms including when it comes to reporting. Rabbi Greenberg is clear that his position of favoring democracy and unbridled individual expression over eternal ethical values is an absolutely minority in the religious world (both MO and charedi). Yet instead of showing respect for his colleagues' position and reexamining his own, he chooses the combative path. Very unfortunate.

Respected by who?? Just a bitter old man who was long ago rejected by orthodoxy - because his beliefs are not orthodox (he was run out of a shul in Riverdale....enough said)...but in these pages, he and his wife are supposed to be the pulse and bellwhether of true modern orthodoxy

I agree with what you've written here about haredi history and their stance, but I can't help painfully noticing an underlying dislike or emotional opposition here... I just wish you were writing this from more neutral perspective and it wasn't infused with such strong dislike.

I find this article confusing and damagiing. Jewish history begims well before 1948 and the Torah, the elemnt that binds and perpetuates the Jews is not mentioned or treated with the respect it deserved. As Jews, we are many parts of a whole. The Chareidim have been, for a large part, the spiritual protectos of our destiny. G-d protects them and that is how they are thriving worldwide. The Jewish people are ill right now as they turn on each other at every opportunity. To me this article perpetuates the negative stereotypes that are destroying us from within. Just like a family will implode if the contributions of each part are not respected. If we do not protect and nurture our spiiritual and physical parts we are destroying ourselves from within.

Rabbi Greenberg, while you write an interesting article I can't help but be troubled by your underlying sentiment- that democracy is more important than halacha. I too disagree with many of the halachic positions of the Charedim, but how can you claim to be frum if you don't concede the superiority of halacha?

What a horrible article shame on you to speak bad about our brothers and sisters especially during thr three weeks dont we have enough enemies to do that??????

Thank you for this perspective on a very difficult situation. Calm discussion of where we are, and why we are here is critical to enabling discussion both within and outside of the Jewish community. Identifying evil (e.g., protecting of child predators) while recognizing the positive attributes within the Haredi community that get clouded by current politics within that community can facilitate that discussion and a greater understanding.

The history that is cited has nothing to do with freedom of religion,the right to adhere to the tenets of torah judaism. Ive reached the point where I feel I can only help clarify the muddle by using these kinds of examples.If the protestants entered a catholic church and tried to force the catholics to modify their religious practices no one in his or her right mind would consider that a defense of democracy or freedom of religion.If he jews for jesus demanded that a shull adopt their practices no one would make those kinds of mistakes either.Somehow, when it comes to torah judaism, there is suddenly a total disregard of those kinds of principles.The "progressives" suddenly become heroes of democracy.Reform and conservative are NOT branches of traditional ,torah judaism; they played NO role in the Temple; and they have no legitimate right to dictate how the customs and traditions that relate to the remnants of the temple are to be practiced.

Let them build a wall somewhere else and practice their customs as they see fit!

The arguement in this letter is specious. To start with, I am a Jew, born to Jewish parents and practicing Judaism in many different environments. I am welcome and have participated in Haredi services at the wall, I have attended Orthodox shuls when I visit my family (my daughter married a man who is "modern Orthodox", I grew up in the Reform movement and am presently an active member of a (right-leaning) Conservative synagogue. Thus I am a Jew and have been welcome and allowed to practice Judaism in many forms without restriction. The Temple is part of my heritage and not just yours. I do not ask you to change the way you worship and as long as I remain within the recognized boundries of the Jewish world, you cannot ask me to change to make you feel comfortable. Your rights stop where mine begin. Beyond that I have no obligation to fund your particularlistic form of Judaism. We all have rights as Jews.

Excellent historical recap of the phenomena around religion and state in Israel and Women of the Wall in particular . I think that the Haredi takeover of Israeli religious values does not only stem from a one time mistake in 1948, but in a continued attitude by secular Israelis that Orthodoxy is the real Judaism and that Ultra Orthodoxy however extreme, must always be 'respected'. Women of the Wall and their supporters all over the world are chipping away at that attitude. Only time will tell if Israel's religious culture will change or if it was set in stone by its founders.

Rachel, I am not sure that I agree with you that secular Israelis think that Ultra Orthodoxy must be respected. In the last election, the biggest political loser (by far) were the Ultra Orthodox parties. They lost at least a dozens seats in the Knesset. Israelis simply got tired of all the corruption of the Ultra orthodox rabbis, the avoidance of the draft, the constant intrusion in their lives by people who literally do not pay their social dues. The saddest / worst thing that ultra Orthodox have done is that they have turned J'lem into a city that secular Israelis shun. to say that secular Israelis have a soft spot for religion is 100% true; to say that they respect the Ultra Orthodox is not. That said, thank you for writing a comment that is reasonable and civil, unlike many of the other writers. We, Jews, are so few in number that it is sad that we always fight often with vitriol with each other. Especially sad during the Three Weeks.