I speak to you from the bottom of my heart regarding burning issues which have troubled me from the onset of my public service. I pray that these heartfelt words of mine will resonate with you, even if we disagree.
It is with a keen sense of fear that I must declare that we, the sons and daughters of religious Zionism, are marching toward the depths of divisiveness – a divisiveness which emanates from forces within our very own ranks, those who choose to act as thought-police disqualifying any position that does not conform to their views.
Over time, the Religious Torani reference point of our sector, our 'Religiosity-Meter', has become stuck at the extreme end of the scale. More and more communities and yeshivot have been cast beyond the pale and denounced as modern-day Biblical Metzoraim (lepers), cast out as: ‘Mityavnim’ (Hellenists), ‘little rabbis who talk nonsense’, ‘those who misquote Torah’ ‘Reform’ and ‘destroyers of Judaism’.
I am humbled by and deeply appreciative of our great sages, hailing from our many Batei Midrash and Yeshivot - a number of whom come from the wonderful Charedi-Leumi yeshivot. Their voice, the voice of sincere Torah, is such an essential part of the fabric of religious Zionism. However, from this esteemed platform today, I must warn us to be wary of the slippery slope of divisiveness on which we find ourselves descending.
While Halachic stringencies that a Jew takes upon their-self privately are their own personal matter, the notion of compelling society at large to follow the most stringent approach with an attitude of ‘It’s this way or the highway’ begets unfavorable consequences: damage to the state's Jewish identity, growing hatred of Judaism, and a deepening rift developing within the Jewish people.
Ladies and Gentlemen, respected friends, extremism within religious Zionism is tearing apart Am Yisrael.
When we consider religious Zionism, we commonly examine two factors: the ‘Rightwing-Meter’ and the 'Religiosity-Meter’ - how right-wing and how religious is one, on the scale. Over the last few decades, most of the discourse around the ‘Rightwing-Meter’ has been centered around the issue of settlements in Yehuda and Shomron. More recently, attitudes toward Israeli Arabs and the balance of power between different governing bodies have also become relevant. The knitted kippa’s sector's opinion of the new government has made this yardstick more relevant. It’s safe to assume that the majority of the national-religious public, with the exception of a small minority, weighs in on the right side of this scale.
It is something I shall not discuss today, although in my opinion it significantly affects the second factor. Regrettably, the groundbreaking changes I am pioneering in the realm of religion and state are now being viewed negatively even by those who have wished for these same changes for years… and all in the name of the sanctity of politics.
The second factor is the ‘Religiosity-Meter’.
Discourse in this area is broad and diverse. Debate over gender issues abound: from women’s Torah study’s place in the world, to coed youth movements, to women's service in the IDF.
This discourse also includes debate about education, from those advocating small and sepratist institutions, to those preferring large, State Religious schools with a diverse roll of pupils.
There are tensions related to the LGBT community as well as Diaspora Jewry, and lively discussions about the meaning of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state.
With our blessed growth, many yeshivot have opened, with diverse study emphases and halachic rulings. All our yeshivas have blossomed, charting vital paths within the world of Torah, philosophy and Halachic ruling. All of them - Divrei Elokim Chayim ‘the words of a Living G-d’.
Despite the wonderful process of growth, expansion and diversity impacting our Torah world over the years, in order to gain religious-Torah legitimacy, it has become necessary to align only with the most stringent Beit Midrash.
This is not a new concept.
Religious DNA, for all religions, is structured so that the more stringent you are, the more religious you are considered to be. This is the same DNA that sought the stamp of ultra-Orthodox Charedi kashrut supervision for years.
True, social media also supports this trend. It’s a well-known fact that as far as getting public attention is concerned, it is difficult to beat the algorithm with a moderate position. So, we find ourselves in a situation where our religious compass is set to be in tandem with the Beit Midrash at the extreme edge of the sectoral scale, aligning almost perfectly with ultra-Orthodox world views, in an "all or nothing" attitude. The struggle for a coherent sectarian narrative has already deteriorated beyond dispute Leshem Shamayim (in the name of heaven) and is tearing the people apart... Quite literally.
Consider, for example, the threat to establish genealogical pedigrees on any procedural change, and I emphasize - this is procedural only, by which I seek to promote Halachic conversion in order to return to the Jewish fold tens of thousands of descendants of The Seed of Israel.
Jews will go ahead and inscribe Jews in genealogical lists. Jews, plan to note down the names of Jewish people in family tree genealogies. Have we lost our minds? How can we consider such a reality without shaking in fear?
Those who speak highly of unity and love of Israel have become those who are pushing us all into the abyss of divisiveness and hatred.
I am not here to spin you yarns, I am describing to you routine religious life in the State of Israel. Hence, every posek following the path of the Rishon Letzion of blessed memory Rabbi Uziel, Ztz”l becomes " a desecrator of the holy of Israel ''. In exactly the same way, poskim in the spirit of the Ben Ish Chai Ztz”l are deemed "reviled" and "reformers'', and those who, ‘heaven forfend’ adopt the way of ruling of the Rishon LeZion of blessed memory Rabbi Ovadia Yosef Ztz”l, are now publicly denounced at the shaming-post of the Charedim-Leumiim.
In this dispute, sectoral bodies boasting the support of a distinguished list of rabbis permit themselves to accuse other rabbis of destroying Judaism and being Sadducees. In this dispute we hear ultra-Orthodox rabbis brandishing our heads of yeshivas, city rabbis and learned sages, as ‘Reformers’ with but weak response from our side. In this dispute, dozens of rabbanim and Rashei Yeshivot hear the Chief Rabbi calling Torah scholars and heads of Zionist Yeshivas ‘little rabbis who talk nonesense’ without a word of protest. In this dispute, Charedi-Leumi rabbis demand the removal of books written by a great rabbi considered sent-down by those who define the party line.
In the months since I became Minister of Religious Services, controversies that sat beneath the surface have risen up and become active volcanoes. From Shabbat leaflets to conversations around Shabbat tables, the controversy has assumed center stage.
Yes, it was always around, but we knew how to manage it. Yet today it has become clear, to my regret, that the Dati-Leumi Religious Zionist public are losing the ability to manage the debate.
Today, any attempt to do things differently is immediately marked as a reform move, led by ‘Mityavnim, Antiochus, Sadducees’ and driven by one goal: the destruction of Judaism.
Today, it is enough that you choose to consult rabbis who are not close enough to the “accepted crowd” and a group of teenagers, led by their rabbi from a Hesder Yeshiva, will fry octopuses outside your house!
I am often slammed for daring to go up against the entire world of Torah.
I ask you, is Yeshivat Har Etzion not the world of Torah? What of Otniel Yeshiva? Are Tzohar rabbanim not part of the Torah world? And Har Bracha Yeshiva - other Yeshivot and rabbinical organizations?
Hundreds of rabbis, all of whom are connected and bound to the truth of Torah, but do not align themselves with the ‘position’ - are they not the world of Torah?
When it comes to the Jewish character of the state, we are living a worldview that believes holy war must be fought to maintain the status quo - the results of which are accepted as if decreed from heaven, as if there is no other way, perhaps even a better way, to care for and even strengthen the state's Jewish identity. The worldview of "all or nothing", has brought us our current dismal state of Jewish identity, brought us to incessant wars precisely over what should have united us all - our Judaism.
After 73 years of war, we must admit quite honestly that when it comes to maintaining the status quo, the religious side has suffered a landslide defeat. Entertainment venues are open on Shabbat as on weekdays. Trading on Shabbat has become routine. About a year ago, because of the same religious extremism, a Reform conversion was recognized in the State of Israel, and fewer and fewer choose to marry in the tradition of Moses and Israel through the Chief Rabbinate.
But worst of all, we suffered all these defeats in battles that deepened the rifts amongst the people of Israel at the terrible price of distancing Jews from Judaism.
Over the years there have been alternatives. From time to time, from the core of the national religious public and with significant Torah support, some have tried to reach broad social agreements to regulate these tensions for once and for all. Agreements that would have had the power to establish Jewish identity and to end the "religious war". A war whose great victim is the unity of our people.
If even one of those protocols had been accepted, there would be no trading on Shabbat, today there would have been no ‘grandchild clause' in the Law of Return. If even one of these outlines had been accepted, conversion according to Halacha would today be the only accepted conversion in the country. If one of these compromises had been accepted, hordes of Jews would have opted for tradition voluntarily, because they would have felt ownership of their Judaism and understood that it is this Judaism which unites us all as one; it is so very precious - something we should cherish and protect.
As it stands, today, alignment with the ultra-Orthodox position is eroding the Jewish identity of the state as it continues in the same destructive path from which there is no escape. Today, in the face of a rare political opportunity to implement the path of religious Zionism, (of which, as we’ve outlined, there is no consensus), we are responsible for managing this dispute with dignity.
I am really proud of the processes we have been able to promote in this short time. Dreams we dared to dream in the Beit Midrash are becoming a reality. Down the road, disputes will continue to arise, and we will continue to manage them all with a sense of responsibility and love for Israel.
Our dear rabbis, great men of our generation, you’ve told us that our job is to be the hyphen - connecting the people of Israel to a life of Torah and Avoda. This is our mission, our Shlichut; and my friends and I aim to spread the message - each in the area that suits his character and abilities.
We have shown that both are possible. Both to study Torah and serve in the IDF. to both excel and lead in the mundane and also to be God-fearing - not necessarily to agree, but to give our all to remain brothers.
But you, Gentlemen, when will you live in peace with one other?
We will not despair in the face of this sad reality. We have internalized our roles as creators, seeking a common denominator, within religious Zionism and in the greater world. We have carefully taken to heart the words of Rav Kook Ztz”l outlining the correct path to increasing justice, faith and wisdom. That is the path of the pure and righteous - not the sowing of controversy, separation and hatred. Hence we will not stand by and watch as they attempt to shift important places of learning and a wonderful public, beyond the pale. These are the words of the Living G-d.
G-d willing, we will do everything we can to be faithful to our people, our Torah and our country.
I cannot end my speech without asking for forgiveness. I stand here today and ask you, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed: forgive us - please forgive us. The words directed at the Rav last week have been hurled at us all, and therefore I would like to reiterate the sincere words of truth that Rav Amit Kula, Rav of Kibbutz Alumim on the Gaza border, put so well:
"Be strong, have courage and do not fear. Torah, which draws from the well of the ages, holds within the refreshing rejuvenating fragrance of the Land of Israel.
Trust. Trust in man - in society. Trust, that honest discourse between groups is better than disregard and alienation. Trust that open discourse can promote, build and save. For this trust has within it the fragrance of redemption."
May it be G-d’s will that we merit such redemption. Blessed be you all.