The wisdom born of experience in leadership is not to be taken lightly. Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi has sought advice from Rabbi Yitzchak Levy several times.
Rabbi Levy was formerly of Rabbi Chaim Druckman's Matzad party, later a faction of the NRP. He then succeeded Zevulun Hammer as head of the party, serving as Minister of Transport and Education during a long and selfless public service career that was a natural choice for the soft-spoken, politically savvy Moroccan-born rabbi whose father was also an MK, and who lives by his ideology in the Negev. Rav Levy and his wife, a social worker, raised five adopted chldren, one of whom was tragically killed in a terrorist attack, leaving a young child. Rav Levy was known for his dedication to social welfare issues in the Knesset.
Arutz Sheva spoke to Rav Levy in order to gaijn his understanding of the political-coalition scene. We started the conversation with the burning issues.
Q. What should be done about what is called "equalizing the burden" – that is, hareidi IDF service?
Rav Levy: The subject is a complex one, and I would like to divide it into three parts.
First of all, of course, how we decide how many should be drafted.
Second, how they define their attitude towards the IDF.
And third, how we can be honest and straightforward about the issue.
Let's start with the second and third topics. The hareidi attitude to serving in the IDF does not seem to be connected solely to Torah study. There is a distancing from the army in general. When Bennett went to visit the Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem, he said that he identifies with the Torah learning way of life, but doesn't understand why they don't say the Mi Sheberach prayer for the welfare of IDF soldiers.
(Editor's Note : Mi Sheberach prayers ask G-d to bless specific persons. They are not considered a new prayer that changes the traditional siddur, but are recited with changing objectives at the Torah readings - to bless those called up to the Torah, their families, the sick, the congregation - and in religious Zionist synagogues, for the IDF soldiers and those missing and wounded).
Rav Levy continues: Of course the Torah protects us, but why not pray also for those who protect us while physically endangering themselves? When that support is not evident, it causes those [hareidim] who don't learn Torah to feel justified in not joining the army either and that is what has caused the problem to erupt. We all see hareidi boys – "batlanim" - driving around during the day and doing all kinds of things besides learning, but nevertheless avoiding the draft.
I am against a quota limiting the number of Torah learners. I am vehemently against that in principle. The solution is in setting a numerical goal for the draft, one that parallels the number that is not using these years to learn Torah. I know that Bennett has changed Lapid's demands to some extent, and I have not seen their agreement, but I am sure there is more that needs amendment to be acceptable to us, not just the hareidim.
And it has to be done with the cooperation of the hareidi rabbis as well as their political leaders. If that is not achieved, nothing will work. It is only through understandings that a change can be effected. If they are not part of the coalition, the chances of reaching an agreement on the subject are minimal.
Q. Why did this become such an issue in this election?
Rav Levy: I want to point an accusing finger at our retired Chief Justic Dorit Benisch, who decided that she had to change the Tal Draft Law for yeshiva students, a wise and prudent law, before she left office. Justice Edna Arbel, her good friend, as well as other justices, told her to leave it alone, but I think she wanted to leave a lasting impression on the Supreme Court and the country - and she chose this issue as the way to do it.
The Tal Law's goals could have been implemented more expediently, solving the problem on a gradual, non-confrontational basis. Instead, Beinisch has the dubious honor of having caused different sectors of the Israeli population to be at each other's throats. That's what will be remembered about her term of office. And she even got some kippa wearing judges to support her.
Q. What will happen if the coalition does not include hareidi parties?
Rav Levy: It's not so terrible. We have survived coaltions without hareidim. Much of the work of the Knesset is done in its committees where they will have representation, we will be sure to protect their interests - most of which we have in common with them - there are all kinds of across the board groups and caucuses with all kinds of agreements made by the MK's in them. It's not so terrible, but it is certainly unfortunate. I am not hysterical about it, but I would like to see them there.
Q. And what about this alliance with Yesh Atid?
Rav Levy: Yesterday Bennett phoned me, as he sometimes does. I had the feeling that the knot between Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi is beginning to unravel.
However, Bennett taught Bibi a thing or two about dealing with political parties.
Q. What is the difference between Bayit Yehudi and the National Religious Party you headed?
Ravi Levy: The ideals are the same, but I am glad to see that the way things are run seems different. The NRP was divided into intractable factions, there were constant quarrels and disagreements between them, power struggles and a lack of desire to move forward in innovative ways. I regret that this change did not happen during my period in the Knesset. In my time, there were petty jealousies, lack of cooperation due to sectorial power plays, and that was part of the reason for the party's decline. I get the impression – and there are MK's whom I know well and with whom I am in contact – that there is a pleasant, working atmosphere in Bayit Yehudi.
The public likes that and if it continues, will have faith in the party and support it.
Q. What are the Bayit Yehudi's challenges and how can it grow?
They have to prove themselves – their ability, their integrity, their stick-to-itivity and willingness to work hard. The ministers have to do a superior job and they all have to act in accordance with Jewish values, with a heart open to everyone. The campaign was an example of all that.
Let's face it, Lapid's list, with all due respect to its leader, has no ideological basis. It is more of a protest party. Most of it is a substitute for Kadima and it will probably not be needed next time around.
Bayit Yehudi has an ideology, that of Eretz Yisrael, loving the Jewish people and the Torah. If they work as they should, they have a bright future.
Q. What do you think about 38 religious MK's in the Knesset?
Rav Levy. This is a golden opportunity to deepen the influence of Jewish values in the Knesset. The question is, of course, whether they will be able to work together on common causes. If they do, they can change the entire country. I am talking about social issues, about man and his fellow man, not about forcing observance. Social justice the Jewish way is a sanctification of G-d's name that will enhance the appreciation of Torah. This is what they can do together, this crosses party lines.
Judaism has high standards for social justice. Today, in a lecture I gave at a Teacher's College, I talked about the commandment to help your neighbor if his donkey has fallen and cannot continue on its way. Late MK Hanan Porat passed a law requiring citizens to come to the aid of one another in life-threatening situations. That is a Torah commandment, "Do not stand by your endangered neighbor", but the Torah also says that this is not enough. It also commands us to help in every way, even to help fix our neighbor's flat tire – and to show solidarity in deeper ways.
The religious Knesset members have to raise the flag of Torah to enhance our people's unity and caring for one another.
On the other hand, I am vehemently against the idea of having Sunday off, one of the issues the party is trying to pass. That is Tel aviv thinking,. Those who live in development towns will have to work anyway, their children will wander the streets and shopping centers. Any budgetary allowance for extra-curricular activities will soon dry up.The only way Sunday can become a day off is if school continues to be in session on Sundays.
Q. Why do we still need religious parties if there are so many religious MK's in other parties?
Rav Levy: Feiglin and the other religious MK's in the Likud are good, talented people, but they are not the leadership of the party. The Likud will not look different because they are there, but they will have influence on the Knesset. If there were G-d-fearing people at the head of the Likud, that would be a different story.
Q. With all these changes, how do you define being a religious Zionist today?
Rav Levy: I don’t think the definition has changed. There was always a broad spectrum of voters in the national religious camp and that is more or less the case now. There were yeshiva-oriented "chardal" voters, "settlers", residents of development towns and more modern Orthodox and non-observant Zionists who identified with our message. That has stayed the same.
The head of the party today is less identified as part of the yeshiva ("chardal") sector , but that doesn't mean that he doesn't represent them, it doesn't mean the voters have changed, because the unification with the National Union party has ensured that every group is represented: women, Torah scholars, main cities and the periphery, religious and secular. We worked to welcome non-observant groups to join our ranks in the past and now we have someone on the list to be their voice. It is a highly representative Knesset list.
Q. What is its ideology?
Rav Levy: The religious Zionist party talks about Torah and action, Torah study and work, Naftali Bennett, Uri Ariel and Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan have spoken about that often, about the value of strengthening Torah. They are close to former IDF Chief Rabbi Ronsky and to other rabbis.
The party's views on the Land of Israel are clear and steadfast. They believe, as always, in the importance of the solidarity and unity of the Jewish people.
So there is no ideological change.
When people say that Bennett wants changes in the status quo agreements between religion and state, I think – although I have not discussed this with him - he means to have less of a hareidi image of the rabbinic courts and the rabbinate. The hareidi leaders did not try to be there for the non-observant public, they concentrated on their own population, and it made the secular see them as coercive.
I haven't heard of anything revolutionary planned. We all want the halakhic point of view to be accepted by the non-observant in a pleasant and welcoming manner.
It is also worth noting that the status quo agreement has been changed many times. Especially with regard to Shabbat – and most of the time, without our having a say in the matter. No one asked us.
It used to be that the secular public was even willing to give up some of its rights to have an obviously Jewish state, but nowadays people are also more conscious of their rights.
Q. What is, what should be, the place of religious Zionist rabbis in the decisions of Bayit Yehudi? You yourself were very close to the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the venerable and beloved Sephardic religious Zionist leader and went to him for advice.
Rabbi Levy. The two parties, National Union and NRP are supposed to meet once the coalition is formed, to work out a final unification agreement. We all feel that there has been enough splintering of our ranks. I imagine that the topic of the rabbis' role will be discussed. There have been suggestions for forming an advisory council of rabbis. The MK's will have to find a way to do something that meets the public's approval.
Seeking advice from rabbis and getting wise counsel is not the same as receiving commands, so that may be a good idea. Our leaders must be connected to our rabbis, that is our way of life. If the party leaders wish it, they can also ask others for advice. At least four of them come to me on their own volition for advice. I am happy to listen and be there for them, because I have no political aspirations and they can speak freely to me. They strike me as modest, able and full of common sense.