Published in Israel Hayom, January 2, 2012
The Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jewish worlds have given themselves very big black eyes (pun intended) over the past weeks with all the reported instances of discrimination against women, violence against school girls, violence against Arabs, and an attack on an army base and a senior officer. The sane (but perhaps too docile) majority of Orthodox Jews are not party to such twisted thinking and abominable behavior. Nevertheless, they are tarred in the public mind by association with the aberrant activists.
The good news is that the sane majority is speaking up and speaking out. Spurred into action by the terrible excesses and abuses of fanatics on the extreme margins of Orthodox society, Religious Zionist (and a few Haredi) rabbis have sought to make their rational and reasonable voices heard, both within their own communities and beyond. It is unfortunate that these levelheaded Orthodox leaders are not receiving better press. (I guess that normalcy is not as press-worthy as extremism).
Just about every hesder yeshiva dean has condemned in crystal clear terms the assault on the IDF commander in Binyamin and his base as well as mosque torching and vandalism aimed at Arab property. Every association of Religious Zionist rabbis, from Tzohar to Young Israel, and the municipal chief rabbis too, have made clear their utter rejection of such behavior. Every weekly Torah pamphlet I read in synagogue these past weeks (and there are dozens of them!) has contained outright denunciation of those who employ violence, and excoriation of the deviant religious thinking behind violence.
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, one of the deans of Yeshivat hesder Har Etzion (and son of the yeshiva’s founder Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, who is the preeminent hesder yeshiva dean in Israel), boldly took on the extremists within Religious Zionism who declared that listening to women’s song at IDF ceremonies was forbidden and even equivalent to blasphemy. Rabbi Lichtenstein conducted a detailed halachic analysis for his students (and encouraged the publication of his remarks) showing that there were well-founded, lenient opinions in halacha which sanction women appearing and singing in public – that could and should be relied upon in the army and other public frameworks, including in-house Religious Zionist gatherings.
“Women should have significant personal and religious self-expression, including non-sexual singing; and for those who want to, it is perfectly legitimate to rely upon the lenient halachic opinions in this regard,” he said. “When the important values of national service and national unity are added into the mix of halachic considerations, it is clear that to provoke unrest and enmity over the commonplace singing of women in army ceremonies, and to disconnect oneself from the public in this way – is a mistake. Fanaticism on this issue sets off alarm bells in every sinew of my body,” said Rabbi Lichtenstein.
Now, a new group of Orthodox rabbis is being formed under the tentative name of “Beit Hillel: Attentive Rabbinic Leadership” for the purpose of expressing forthright views on current affairs from a “Zionist, modern, democratic and tolerant” perspective. (The House of Hillel, or Beit Hillel, was a moderate school of thought in the Talmudic era). “In recent times,” write the founders of this new group, “militant views in Jewish tradition are often the only perspective on current affairs heard in public discourse. We seek to offer perspectives that will express the sophistication, tolerance, complexity and spiritual power of Judaism for the modern age.”
Among the founders of this modern young rabbis association are Amnon Bazak of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Tsachi Hershkovitz of Petah Tikva and Bar-Ilan University, Ronen Lubitch of Nir Etzion and Haifa University, Chaim Navon of Modiin, and Ronen Neuwirth of Raanana. More power to them.
Now it’s time for the Ultra Orthodox world to demonstrate a similar level of clarity regarding its commitment to civility and reasonableness within halacha and in its interface with broader Israeli society.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has spoken out against overdone gender separation and against Ultra Orthodox extremist actions like the wearing of Nazi yellow stars to protest “the evil empire of Zionism.” But fewer senior Ashkenazi Ultra Orthodox leaders (Lithuanian or Hassidic) have made their voice heard clearly against the extremists. My Haredi friends tell me that this is not necessary. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people in Haredi circles,” they say, “know that violence and ugly behavior like spitting is verboten. Nobody seeks to violently enforce gender separation on the secular public, not on buses or elsewhere. Nobody takes the ultra minority Toldot Aharon, Shomrei Emunim, Satmar and Sikrikim circles seriously,” they assert.
But I say: That’s not good enough. Top Haredi leadership has to act vigorously and publicly to delegitimize, isolate and crush the extremists – for the sake of mainstream Haredi society and for ours.
Unfortunately, senior Ashkenazi leadership seems to have other concerns on its mind. Last week, a significant halachic epistle was published, supposedly in the name of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (the senior-most Ashkenazi Ultra Orthodox Lithuanian sage), banning participation in the special tracks for integration of Haredim in the army, national service and academia. This would doom Haredi society to continued isolation and poverty, and widen the gaps between them and the rest of the public to intolerable levels. I hope that Rabbi Eliashiv isn’t really behind the epistle, and that the Haredi public will know better than to slavishly follow this unfortunate ruling.