Behind the Headlines: Israel’s Modern Orthodox Begin to Re-examine Role of Movement

Modern Orthodox leaders in Israel are trying to launch a movement to build bridges across the widening religious-secular gulf.

Some 200 Israeli rabbis, academics and activists gathered last month at Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee to rethink the role of religious Zionism and modern Orthodoxy in Israel.

It was 23 years since a similar conference was held. Although the organizers of the recent meeting said it was apolitical, they appeared to be motivated by several trends affecting the modern Orthodox:

the shift by the National Religious Party, the religious Zionist party, from a moderating political force to one of the most steadfast opponents of land-for- peace deals with the Palestinians;

fervently Orthodox groups gaining political power while successfully luring many secular Jews and modern Orthodox towards Judaic fundamentalism;

the increasing permissiveness of Israeli secular culture, which makes it much more difficult to reconcile orthodoxy and modernity, and is also persuading many young people to remove their yarmulkas.

Organizers insisted the convention was intended to promote unity on social and religious issues among the modern Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Pessimistic participants, however, fear the gathering, which wrestled with such issues as the role of women in Orthodox Jewish life, may actually further divide the community.

While politics were not on the agenda, organizers acknowledged that more participants were supporters of Meimad, the small, center-left modern Orthodox movement which supports trading land for peace with the Palestinians, than the NRP, the political backbone of West Bank settlers.

In its early years, the NRP was a moderate political force that often formed alliances with Labor-led governments. Its transformation into a far-right group during the past 20 years, say experts, has also weakened its influence as a moderating force on social and religious issues.

There are few moderate Orthodox members in the current Knesset, while there are some 14 fervently Orthodox Knesset members. Meanwhile, the NRP’s nine are almost exclusively focused on holding back the peace process.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, head of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva and a Meimad founder, chose to discuss politics despite the organizers’ intentions in his address opening the conference. He lashed out at the use of halachah, or Jewish law, to justify political goals, such as opposition to the Oslo peace accords.

“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think what may happen in a young person’s mind when these beliefs are shaken,” he said, referring to the transfer of West Bank land to Palestinian rule.

“In the eyes of the younger generation, the halachah in its entirety has become something that has no connection with reality,” said Amital, who was a minister without portfolio in the previous government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres. “Halachah has turned into something autistic — completely detached from the real world.”

The transformation of halachah into “dangerous slogans” that fail to emphasize traditional Judaic values, said Amital, has created a severe crisis of faith among religious youth.

Nevertheless, the Lavi talks remained focused on social-religious issues, and after three days of discussions participants agreed that:

Orthodox-secular relations must undergo a fundamental change, aimed at forging unity instead of trying to attract secular Jews to orthodoxy.

Orthodox rabbinic leaders must complement their training with a broader education and deal with social issues such as domestic violence and socioeconomic disparities.

Orthodox solutions must be found to reconcile the changing role of women in the modern world.

According to Menachem Friedman, sociology professor at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Israeli Orthodoxy who attended the convention, the push by women to attain a larger role in Jewish life will make it virtually impossible to promote unity within Israel’s modern Orthodox community.

“Forget about it,” he said. “The minute women study Torah, you cannot stop the process. In the end, like it or not, some communities will grant a bigger role to women in prayer and religious leadership. This will cause an explosion, and other elements will use this as a reason to divide the community.”

Although not all religious rightists in Israel are extreme in their Orthodoxy, Friedman said “statistical proof” exists showing a correlation in right-wing religious political views and religious extremism.

He rejects the view of many conference participants who hoped the gathering would be a milestone for raising the moderate Orthodox flag in Israel.

“Unfortunately, I think that the social and political trends are pushing in the opposite direction — towards more extremism,” he said.

But Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and a conference organizer, said the Lavi gathering will produce concrete results.

“This is not only talk,” he insisted. “We all had the feeling that unless there are practical results we have not done anything innovative here.”

Zuroff said a steering committee has been established, including representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the religious kibbutz movement and Yeshiva University alumni in Israel.

“We can be a role model,” Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, who attended part of the conference, said in a telephone interview. “This in many ways is a founding session that will launch it [modern Orthodoxy] as an identifiable group in Israel.”

Lamm said Israeli modern Orthodoxy differs from the American version, since in Israel modern Orthodoxy has been politicized and also “confined” primarily to intellectuals. “In America it’s a more popular movement and only in the past few years have we begun to mobilize the intellectuals.”

Lamm said his university wants to share its experiences with the Israeli group of building the Orthodox Forum and the Orthodox Caucus, a modern Orthodox think tank and action group established over the past five years in the United States. Zuroff said the Israeli steering committee is “seriously considering” setting up similar institutions as quickly as possible.

NEXT STORY