Meet the Great Jewish Satan and His War Against God
For Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders, MK Gilad Kariv is the key figure in a grand conspiracy theory that features Reform Judaism as Satan and scapegoat. And as the rebellion against their authority grows, so does their chilling invective.
I confess: Whenever I think that I have become fully immune to the vicious, hate-filled attacks of Israel’s haredi leaders on Reform Jews and Reform Judaism, those leaders descend to new depths of vitriol and succeed in ruffling my composure.
An example is the extraordinary rant by Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, chillingly ugly even by Haredi standards, made from the rostrum of the Knesset on December 27.
Litzman is not just another Haredi politician. As chairman of Agudat Israel’s Knesset faction, and trusted confidant and fixer for the Gerrer Rebbe, he is a major force in the Haredi world.
During a Knesset debate, Litzman turned his attention to Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who headed Israel’s Reform movement before being elected to the Knesset on the Labor party list. Kariv was sitting in the chamber. For Litzman and his ultra-Orthodox colleagues, Kariv is the major figure in a grand conspiracy theory that sees Reform Judaism as the great Jewish Satan, eating away at the foundations of Jewish life in Israel and America.
Here are some of his words: “You are a Reformer. You are a [Christian] priest. You are not a rabbi. Take off your kippah. You are one who simply despises religion.”
And then, pointing at Kariv, he continued, his voice dripping with contempt:
“You must go to America. Leave us alone here. We must pass a law that this Reformer must return to America and stop destroying religion here — and stop engaging in violations of the law, which is what he is doing at the Western Wall.”
Litzman’s attack drew almost no attention in the Jewish press in America. Screaming, raucous debates on a whole range of topics have become a daily occurrence in the Knesset, and in any case, Haredi attacks on Reform Jews are hardly new.
And there is no reason to be naïve. We Jews are a contentious people. Some say that the reason we survive is to continue the argument.
Think of the conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, between Saadya Gaon and Ben Meir over the Hebrew calendar, between the Chasidim and Mitnagdim — not to mention the halakhic authorities in every age who rejected one another.
In the religious realm in particular, passionate pluralism has always been the rule for Jews rather than the exception, and we are better off for it. It is a healthy thing that Judaism lacks a coherent, authoritative interpretation of the tradition, and that Jews today are spread over the religious continuum, from radical reform to absolute, fundamentalist Orthodoxy.
As a committed Reform Jew, I am among those who welcome the present muddle and hope it will continue. And I neither need nor want the blessing of Haredi rabbis for my brand of Judaism.
Nonetheless, as noted, I still find myself a bit disconcerted when the Haredi authorities demonize everything Reform. Day after day, in government proceedings and the Haredi press, the attacks multiply and the level of invective rises. I never expected that the Jewish state would end the religious wars of the Jews, but I once hoped, in the spirit of Herzl, that it might provide a forum where the debate could be conducted with a modicum of decency and decorum.
But in fact, exactly the opposite has happened. Is it truly necessary for a Haredi leader to stand at the Knesset rostrum and scream “priest” at a respected Reform rabbi? (Kariv’s dignified response, for Hebrew speakers, may be found here.) How does such a hate-filled display bring honor to the parliament of the Jewish state?
Is it necessary for the word “Reformer” to be used not as a religious description but as an all-purpose curse — and a vehement denunciation of all those, religious and otherwise, who oppose Haredi power and monopoly? Is it necessary for Haredi headlines to refer to Reform work in Israel as “A War Against God”?
And it is important to notice how Litzman proposes to meet the supposed Reform threat. “Go to America,” he tells Kariv. In other words: Get out of Israel. He offers neither argument nor theology as a response, but the demand that religious Jews not of his liking are not welcome in the state of the Jewish people.
And also: “Take off your kippah.” In other words, says Litzman, Reform Jews are to be denied the right to participate in the religious symbols and sites of Judaism, whether the kippah or the Wall, as their own.
It is reasonable to wonder how we got to this place. In the first few decades of Israel’s existence, haredi leaders rarely spoke as Litzman did, whatever they may have believed. But what is happening now, and especially in the last year, is a story of power gained—and now threatened.
Likud’s victory in 1977 created today’s Haredi state-within-a-state. Government money poured into haredi institutions, exemptions from army service were granted to virtually all Haredi young men, and employment among Haredi males plummeted. As a result, Haredi rabbis increased their power over their own community and strengthened their religious monopoly in matters affecting other Israeli Jews.
But events of the last year have shaken their confidence, undermined their political status, and made them aware of their deteriorating position among the non-Haredi Jews of Israel.
Firmly allied with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Haredi parties were left out of the governing coalition when Naftali Bennett formed his government.
This meant the loss of political influence and funding for their institutions. And it meant that the Bennett government could turn its attention to issues of religion and state that had been avoided for years. Back on the agenda were matters such as kashrut and conversion reform, operating the light rail in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, and implementing the Western Wall agreement.
Little has actually been done, but Haredi leadership is worried. And they are mostly worried because polls show major shifts in sentiment on religion among broad segments of the population.
Israelis want civil marriage, and about a quarter of Israeli Jews simply refuse to be married by the Orthodox rabbinate. Israelis want the right to shop on Shabbat, and a majority of them are already doing so. Israelis want access to public transportation on Shabbat, and Israel’s wealthier cities and towns are already making it available to their residents.
And if all that were not enough, as Anshel Pfeffer here in Haaretz has frequently pointed out, members of the Haredi community are defying rabbinic directives and covertly using smart phones, giving them access to the modern world outside the walls of the Haredi ghetto.
Who is to blame for this incipient rebellion against rabbinic authority and the Haredi religious monopoly?
For Rabbi Litzman and so many in the Haredi establishment, the answer is simple: The Reformim.
Blame them, they say. Far better to do that than to reconsider our own ways, and to offer a Judaism of education and persuasion in place of a Judaism of coercion. Far better to present Reform rabbis as priests and devils than to rethink the rigidly hierarchical Jewish model that we insist on and that so many Israelis resent and reject.
And this is where the Western Wall agreement comes in. I laugh when I hear claims that Reform Jews are exploiting the crisis at the Wall for their own purposes.
Exactly the opposite is true. The deal that was reached in 2016 was a very good deal for the Haredim and a much-less-good deal for the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall. The latter coalition, which had been insisting on their right to worship in the women’s section of the main plaza, agreed to renounce that right and to worship instead at a new plaza, which is now called “the southern wall.” They did so — rightly, in my view —because they were granted a modest role in the governance of the new site, a symbolic step of potentially precedent-setting importance.
But the real victors were the Haredi keepers of the Wall, who for 30 years had been attempting to rid themselves of the monthly women’s prayer service at the main Wall — a service that they saw as an affront to their principles and their authority, not to mention a public relations disaster. And rid themselves of the service they did.
Why then did they pull out of the deal, thereby leading to a resumption of those same monthly prayers?
Because, beleaguered by an increasingly assertive Israeli public demanding religious freedom, and challenged by internal forces demanding either radicalism or change, they saw the battle over the Wall as an opportunity. It gave them an enemy that they needed and upon whom everything could be blamed: Reform Jews. It served to mobilize their own forces, and especially the young, who might be apathetic about other things but could be counted on to “defend” the Wall.
And, perhaps, they thought, it would draw to their side some of those Israelis, traditionally inclined but not Haredi, who were challenging them in other areas but might join a war for the Wall.
The result? Instead of an agreement initially supported by all sides and leading to peace at a sacred site for the Jewish people, we have utterly unnecessary disruption, chaos, and tension. Thank you very much, Rabbi Litzman, and all the other leaders of Agudat Israel who have bequeathed to us this ongoing crisis.
The lessons to be learned, it seems to me, are the following:
Attacks by Litzman and others on Reform Jews are certain to continue, and those of us in the Reform movement will have to be prepared for this very unpleasant reality.
There is no point in working on “deals” with the Haredi world over basic issues of religious freedom. Don’t expect compromises on questions related to civil marriage and Shabbat. Under attack from all sides, the Haredi establishment will become more radical rather than less. And if they do make a deal, they cannot be counted on to keep it.
And finally, the Bennett government needs to move as quickly as it can to legislate far-reaching change in the religious realm. The right-wing elements of the government are urging a go-slow, “flexible” approach. But this is a mistake. Religious zealots are nothing new in Israel’s political life. But cutting them slack because of the fervor of their beliefs is perfect folly.
It is precisely their zealotry, their unwillingness to compromise, and their intolerance that makes them a danger to Judaism, to Israel, and to the Jewish people.