This essay was previously published in Jerusalem Post (24.1 2020)
Now that there is a serious possibility that the chess players in Israeli politics will be drastically moved around, and a predominantly secular government is going to lead the country, it is high time the religious parties and institutions, as well as their leaderships, ask themselves some hard and uncomfortable questions.
How is it possible that after more than 70 years the religious parties have not only failed to inspire the majority of Israelis to feel a closer affiliation to Judaism and to foster a greater appreciation for the Jewish way of living, but have in fact caused hundreds of thousands of Israelis to opt for a more secular lifestyle and to identify with some parties and movements that seem to be committed to doing away with crucial aspects of the State of Israel’s Jewishness?
While it has been the custom of the religious establishment to point a finger at the media, the secular hardliners and the intelligentsia, accusing them of a deliberate attempt to misinform the general public about the religious world and its ideology, such an approach no longer holds water. Although it is definitely true that there has been a great amount of deliberate misinformation fed to Israeli society regarding Judaism and the religious community, it is time for the religious parties and our religious leaders to admit that for years they have played their cards wrong.
Just as the Israeli government often fails to understand the mind of the non-Jewish world, so the religious parties have continually misread the minds and hearts of secular Israelis, turning them into antagonists. Just as the Israeli leadership does not seem to grasp the rudiments of proper public relations policies, so the religious parties in no way understand how to explain themselves and their values to a secular Israeli society. And just as this failure of the Israeli government has caused great damage to the image of Israel, so have the religious parties caused long-lasting harm to the image of Judaism.
There was, and is, no reason for all this. Israel is unique in its ethical rules of warfare while defending its borders. No army has ever shown so much respect for the lives of its enemies as the Israeli army. No nation has ever been more concerned with the condition and welfare of those people who are intent on destroying its very existence. No army has ever dared to put its own soldiers in such dangerous positions so as not to injure the innocent among its enemies. No nation has ever been prepared to give up large parts of its land, thereby endangering its own security, as Israel was prepared to do for the Palestinians.
And no nation has so miserably failed to use these and other facts to explain itself to a world that, in turn, should have professed overwhelming admiration for this small country caught between hostile nations in the Middle East.
In the same vein, the religious parties and rabbinical leaders should have made use of the most advanced, uplifting teachings of Judaism, which would have created unprecedented admiration for Judaism among the Israeli people. If anything should impress secular Israelis, it is Jewish values, genuine religious observance, integrity, impeccable example, and high ethical performance in private and communal life.
But little of this has been the objective of the religious parties. While we do not doubt the integrity and good intentions of some of their leaders, they are failing miserably as political parties. Instead of creating an atmosphere in the Knesset and among the Israeli population that money, prestige and political infighting are not issues that play any role in the making of the religious world view, they have convinced many Israelis that the Jewish religion is identified with party politics, questionable financial deals, and self-interest. And if it is true that no such inaccuracies actually occurred, as some of the religious party leaders would like us to believe, we wonder even more how it is possible that such a devastating image of the religious parties ever came about.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that the religious parties are involved in any real soul searching, or even coming close to admitting that something is drastically wrong.
Sure, there are some outstanding independent rabbis and religious movements who are doing everything to change the situation, but their voices are barely heard. Instead, they are constantly ignored and even condemned by the rabbinical establishment.
What religious party leaders need to realize is that their image is being more and more compromised, and that this is a forecast of what will occur in the years to come. Their fight for Judaism will be over and their parties will no longer constitute a danger to the other opposing ideologies. While at this moment, the religious parties are still growing and carry much power, there is enough evidence in political history that powerful parties can easily become completely irrelevant a short while later.
Let no one make the mistake of thinking that such a situation cannot take place in Israel because of the high percentage of religious Israelis. There is little doubt that more and more religious and traditional people will opt for joining their secular rivals, out of great disillusionment with the religious parties and powerful rabbis.
However much the rabbinical leadership will try to stop this trend, it will not succeed unless it repents and drastically changes direction to stand for a highly inspiring Judaism and moral integrity, thereby making Judaism irresistible.
What rabbinical leaders and thinkers need to do is cook up a storm that will shake the whole of Israeli society; a storm that will prove they have freed themselves from the quicksand in which they are stuck. There is no doubt that authentic Judaism carries all the ingredients to make this possible. It is the rabbis who must show the courage to implement the real values of Torah. This could solve many of Israel’s problems – whether it is dealing with the many religious issues such as the status of women in Judaism, the agunah problem, the attitude towards non-Jews , human equality, conversion, military and civil service, which have made a bad name for Judaism in the eyes of the general population; or the many social problems, which have led to serious tension between the religious and non-religious residents of the State of Israel. (For many detailed observations and suggestions, see my book: Jewish Law as Rebellion, a Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, 2018.)
In a completely unprecedented shift, the rabbis and religious leaders should lead the ship of Torah at full sail, right into the heart of Israeli society, causing such a shock to the Knesset that it will take days, weeks, or months before it can get back on its feet.
With knives between their teeth, and just like the prophets of biblical days, those religious leaders will be known for their impeccable and uncompromising conduct and will create a moral-religious uproar that will scare the moral wits out of the secular and religious Knesset members and weigh heavily on their souls, inspiring all Israelis, secular or religious.
Real religious leaders should not be “honored,” “valued,” or “well respected,” as they are now; rather, they should be feared as men of truth. Israelis should be shaking in their shoes at the thought of meeting with them, while simultaneously being incapable of staying away from their towering, fascinating personalities carried by their infinite love for all Jews and fine gentiles.
Israel will not survive without Judaism, but it must be a Judaism that has liberated itself from religious and halachic stagnation caused by its mainstream rabbinical leadership. It must show its multifaceted, colorful religious and social dimensions, imbued with much encouragement, which have become the sine qua non for a modern Jewish State.
Only then will Israeli society extricate itself from its ongoing predicaments, which have led to the tragedy of necessitating a third election.
If it does not do so, Israel will lose its identity and consequently its raison d’etre. And it will be the rabbinical establishment that will have to ask itself who was responsible for this enormous tragedy.