The Voice of Mainstream Torah-True Religious Zionism

The traditional Israeli Religious Zionist mainstream must awaken from its torpor and make its voice heard above that of "enlightened moderates" who have monopolized media coverage. Rabbi Baruch Efrati has begun activities aimed to do just that.

Emanuel Shilo, 'Besheva' Editor in Chief,

Emnuel Shilo
Emnuel Shilo

On the fringe of the religious sector a new generation has risen whose laxity in observing halakhah comes with an ideological "cover".
Translated from this week's Hebrew "Besheva" newspaper.

An open meeting took place at Jerusalem's Beit Harav Kook  (once the home of Israel's Religious Zionist first Chief Rabbi, today a museum and meeting place dedicated to his life and thought) last week. It was a gathering of rabbis aimed at revitalizing the activity of the longtime rabbinic association "Derech Emunah (The Path of Faith)".

Despite the stormy weather, many tens of Israel's Religious Zionist rabbis managed to make their way there, all eager to impact on public awareness of the legacy of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook  and his son Harav Tzvi  Yehuda.  Attending were some of Israel's leading and most venerable religious Zionist rabbis, and alongside them, middle aged rabbis and young, energetic rabbis, all of whom represent mainstream Orthodox  life and values, as disseminated by the flagship Zionist yeshiva, Merkaz Harav and its offshoots.

The Merkaz Harav movement, once practically the only one extant in Religious Zionism, is now being contested actively by the voices of new organizations which have managed to become the primary ones heard when it comes to representing the Religious Zionist world in the media and public sectors.

The new organizations achieved this because of their demonstrated "open" and "enlightened" stance on issues, but not only due to that.  They managed to build positive relationships with a wide variety of groups, demonstrated perseverance and dedication as well as considerable organizational skills, a talent for fundraising and media savvy.

The traditional, mainstream Zionist rabbis, whose lives are dedicated to the sanctified labor involved in enhancing Jewish life and study, each in his own city, congregation or yeshiva, now feel that they must also ensure that their voices be heard by general public in an organized, synchronized manner.

It is not that they sat back and did nothing up to now besides their usual efforts; actually, many of them are very active in areas such as creating new educational frameworks, Torah nuclei (known as Garinim Toraniim) for outreach in development towns, managing established media outlets, and some have come up with new initiatives, such as Internet Rimon (a popular internet filter for the religious parent). What they feel is missing is a holistic and palpable presence that comes of wide-ranging unity of purpose and operations.

The feeling that there is a crisis at hand was strengthened by the rare sight of the Roshei Yeshiva (deans) of the competing yeshivas, Merkaz Harav and Har Hamor, sitting under one organizational umbrella. There is no doubt that the split in the traditional camp itself, between the yeshivas under the aegis of Har Hamor versus all the others, is one of the reasons for that camp's present situation. The ability to count on cooperation between religious Zionism's great rabbis will greatly increase the chances of once again becoming a major force in the public sphere.

During the years that this mainstream source of Torah views did not reach out to the general public, new voices, whose main characteristic is their willingness to go to great lengths to adapt Judaism and halakhah to au courant universal values and to demands from the non-obvservant environment, took center stage. Allowing feminist mantras to erode accepted Torah standards in various areas of tzniut (modesty), they encourage Ulpena (religious girls high school) graduates to join the IDF and even created an Orthodox Rabbinic organization that, for the first time, has women members ("rabbas",  halakhic-decisors or women with advanced Torah knowledge?  The criteria are unclear).

There are more and more strident voices in those organizations calling for Torah legitimacy for those with homosexual tendencies rather than for understanding and empathy.

During the campaign for the Chief Rabbinate we saw public figures, academics and media personalities calling loudly to stop the rabbis who dared to intervene in politicians' considerations of who is worthy to be the next Chief Rabbi – and calling the rabbis' actions "chutzpah".  

On the fringe of the religious sector a new generation has risen whose laxity in observing halakhah (Jewish Law) comes with an ideological "cover".  This latter group publicizes itself everywhere and gets admiring media coverage, even in newspapers that are thought to aim at the Religious Zionist sector.

These and other factors make it imperative that the traditional Orthodox mainstream awaken from its torpor.

If the rabbis of the Rabbi Kook movement succeed in freeing themselves from their organizational inertia and become a more significant factor in the public, media and political spheres, they will see to it that Eretz Yisrael once again becomes a clearly-stated Torah value. Our greatest rabbinic luminaries – Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Shapira, Rabbi Yisraeli, Rabbi Eliyahu – were not afraid to put the value of settling the land  they saw as the Jewish people's inheritance in a central position, despite the public debate and disagreement on the subject. They expressed the truth of Torah as they saw it and defended it steadfastly, whether or not the entire public agreed with them.

In the new rabbinic organizations, the ideological flag bearing the standard of settling and inheriting the Promised Land is at half-mast. That is partly due to their founding rabbis having come from backgrounds that held other Torah views on the subject, but mainly due to their desire to be non-controversial so as to be loved by the media and non-religious opinion-makers.

That's how it came to pass that rabbis who fight for Israel and for saving the settlement enterprise are constantly denigrated and maligned by the media, while their colleagues who do not carry the burden of this public battle are seen as moderate and enlightened. There have been instances of rabbis who went so far as to attempt to prove their enlightened status by publicly and sharply attacking rabbinic colleagues who dared to express the stance of mainstream religious Zionist rabbis.

In other areas as well, such as the attitude towards the "gay community", feminist demands or the halakhic rights of an IDF soldier, the media differentiates between those it deems "enlightened, considerate" rabbis and "extremist, unenlightened" ones. Rabbis with politically incorrect opinions that are contrary to the expectations of the media and secular public are vilified and attacked, while those who are politically correct find themselves praised.

In order to withstand these attacks, there has to be unity, mutual support and a clear picture of the situation that will show that the liberal Torah voices that are attempting to weaken  age-old tradition and accepted halakhah are, in most cases, a negligible minority.

A mainstream, traditional rabbinic organization will be characterized by the fact that the opinions that hold sway are those of the elder rabbinic sages. However, in order to see to it that modern, effective methods of influencing public opinion are utilized, younger energetic figures must have freedom of action. Success will not come from press releases and lists of rabbinic signatures for or against an issue.

It is crucial to engage in activities with tangible benefits for the general public so as to gain approval and influence. Finding adequate funding is vital.

It is to be hoped that the young head of the organization, Rabbi Baruch Efrati, will know how to form a group of aides and activists who can turn the mainstream rabbinic majority viewpoint into the one that is most-heard