Haredim, Democracy And Women Of The Wall


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.