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Op-Ed: Respect the Rabbis

Religious Zionist philosophy involved respect for the wise decision-making of Torah scholars and sages. Has this been abrogated? It seems so.
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 4:41 PM


In debates with their hareidi peers, national-religious youths will often be heard to demand why the hareidim do not respect national-religious rabbis.

“What about our great Torah scholars!” they say.

But why should the hareidim respect great national-religious rabbis if the rabbis’ own community does not?

A letter released this week, in the most public way possible, by deputy mayors belonging to the religious Zionist Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) - it was published on all the usual sites, including hareidi ones—asks the parties’ rabbis not to interfere with political decisions made by the party’s negotiating team or by the party’s Knesset members, even on the topic of yeshiva students’ military service.

Would a hareidi Jew ever release such a letter? Of course not!

*                         *                         *

The "settlement" movement in Yesha, it is important to remember, was not the work of professionals and businessmen.  It was the work of national-religious rabbis holding discussions at the home of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook of Merkaz Harav yeshiva  through the wee hours of the morning.  Hanan Porat and Yehuda Hazani are no longer with us, but we still have rabbis: Moshe Levinger—we’ll return to him—Yaakov Levin, Yaakov Novick, Yohanan Fried, Yoel Bin Nun, Menachem Felix.  We still have serious Torah scholars: Benny Katzover, Yehuda Etzion, Mati Dan, David Be’eri (of Ir David), Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever (of Amana).  We have great rabbis who are spiritual leaders of the return to Yesha: Rabbis Zalman Melamed,  Elyakim Levanon,  Yaakov Shapira and more.  All of them participated in creating and promoting the settlement enterprise from their shtenders (bookstands) at their respective yeshivot.  That is what gave rise to the settlement revolution.

The revolution in national-religious education, for that matter, was likewise the work of wise and devout rabbis, including Rabbis Hayim Drukman, Dov Lior, Eliezer Melamed, and others.

And now they come and tell us that when it comes to truly important questions of morality and policy, decisions are to be made without the rabbis.  Period.

How are they going to distinguish between what is permissible in politics and what is forbidden?  How are they going to strike a balance between what is desirable and what is presently available?

No problem.  That’s the job of the new breed of  "halakhic decision-makers": the “professionals.”

True, they never imbibed the Torah as did those rabbis, who for their entire lives have dedicated themselves to the Torah (in the vernacular: they put their heart and soul into it day and night.  No movies.  No Shlomo Artzi concerts).  But apparently it makes no difference.  Apparently the Torah does not rub off on its students.  Apparently it is not in any way reflected in how they live their lives …

It’s all very strange to me.  The hareidim, who regard the State of Israel as an entirely secular phenomenon lacking any and all sanctity, consult their rabbis about such matters.  Yet the national-religious community—the community that burst forth into the world of national practicalities and leadership with the message that the State of Israel is the beginning of the Redemption, that our country is God’s throne, that the politics of Israel is the politics of holiness, its Chief Rabbinate a holy position—sends the rabbis home, the better to  leave decisions to politicians and interested parties.

In a recent emergency meeting of hareidi rabbis in Bnei Brak, I saw precisely the opposite.  Their Knesset members stood at the rear with modesty and obvious veneration.  They maybe even have been posing a little.  But one way or another, it was moving.  Respect for the Torah, for the wisdom of those who never leave it.

*                         *                         *

A recent conversation with a young national-religious activist made clear to me that this is a deep-seated phenomenon among the younger generation.  He sees the change as a positive development.  “The rabbis don’t understand politics.  Let them leave it to professionals.”

It’s not that he doesn’t respect the rabbis.  He just leaves them out of the equation.  In a debate with a hareidi he would go straight for the line about “our great Torah scholars,” but deep down he doesn’t in fact believe that Torah study improves a person, adds wisdom.

Like him, I am not a Torah scholar.  So why do I see things so differently?  Is it just a matter of age?

Many of today’s young religious people have grown up in a culture that is more in touch with the media and secular literature than with rabbis, and may even be hostile to the latter.  In an effort not to be different from the other guys on reserve duty, they run away from their rabbis.  Is it realistic to demand they respect rabbis when their role models are businessmen and their commanders in the army?

I received my initial education about respecting rabbis from my late father, an Auschwitz survivor.  Once he took me to see the Rebbe of Gur.  Abba stood opposite the Rebbe wearing a rope belt that one of the hassidim had given him (“You go in to see the rebbe wearing a gartel”)—and burst into tears.  The Rebbe asked why he was crying.  And my father answered: “Awe.”  I was nine years old, but I remember it as if it was yesterday.

Every Shabbat, my father took my hand in his and we walked over to the rabbi of our city to say Shabbat shalom.

Another lesson in respecting rabbis I received from Yonah Haikin.  Yonah was a Hevron resident, a hero, who was once stabbed in the back by an Arab on the street there.  With the knife still in his back, he ran after the Arab and shot him.  Years later he developed cancer.  When Rabbi Dov Lior came to visit him on his deathbed, Yonah asked his wife to call in his children from the hallway.  “Look at the face of this tzaddik,” he commanded.  Modest Rabbi Lior said nothing.  This was one of the last things Yonah taught his children about respecting Torah scholars.

One more story, this one about rabbinic leadership on the battlefield:

It was a Friday night in 1980.  Six yeshiva students had been murdered across from Beit Hadassah in Hevron.  After we evacuated the bodies and the wounded, three men were issued special permits to enter Beit Hadassah and speak with the women who had stationed themselves there.  Rabbi Levinger began talking to them, expressing his condolences.  As he was doing so, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and Chief-of-Staff Rafi “Raful” Eitan entered.  They waited for him to finish.

And suddenly, typically, Rabbi Levinger turned on them: “—and if you don’t expel the three people who incited these murders—tonight—you will be responsible for the next murder.”  Ezer tried to calm him, but the rabbi repeated himself fiercely.

His interlocutors left and went up to the government building in Hevron to oversee the military’s response to the murders.  Zambish, who was there at the time, tells of Raful turning to Ezer and telling him: “The rabbi is right.  If we don’t do it tonight, it won’t happen.  But we need approval from the prime minister.  What can we do?”

Ezer said, “Have Rabbi Levinger speak with Begin.”

“On Shabbat?”

The rabbi didn’t hesitate.  He spoke on the telephone for twenty minutes, in the middle of Shabbat.  He yelled.  He protested.  He convinced.  That very night, the helicopter that had brought the defense minister and chief of staff to Hevron took off with the three inciters and deposited them on the other side of the border.

This is Torah.  This is its rightful place in all our lives, both private and public.

First published in Makor Rishon (print edition) Translated by David B. Greenberg. Sent to Arutz Sheva by the writer.