Primitive, Fanatic and Messianic: The Racist Judaism of Israel’s “Religious” Government
A phony Torah of extremist sectarianism, a bizarre, atavistic, infuriating combination of zealotry and self-interest: The “Judaism” being advanced by Israel’s nightmare new government is a violation and abasement of what most Israelis, and American Jews, regard as their heritage and identity.
Who are the fools and the fraudsters in Israel’s government who profess to be “religious leaders” in the Jewish state? And what Torah exactly are these so-called “Torah observant” Jews reading?
These are the questions that trouble me as I look at the ruling coalition that was recently established in Israel and is beginning to settle in and act on its agenda.
In virtually every respect, this government is a nightmare – fanatic, dismissive of Zionist principles, and a danger to Israel’s survival as a democratic and Jewish state. But as a religious Jew, I am especially distressed by the fact that the leading and most radical voices of the government are voices that identify as “religious,” and claim to find inspiration and direction in the Torah.
The government has six parties, and five are “religious.” They fall into two groups: Haredi Jews and national religious (aka religious Zionist) Jews, although there is now a certain degree of overlap between the two. But neither group is actually religious as the term has been understood in mainstream Judaism for two millennia.
Furthermore, the Torah in whose name they speak is not the Torah of normative Judaism at all. Theirs is a phony Torah – a product of clerical politics and fake coalitions, conjured up for narrow, sectarian purposes.
For example, in the actual Torah, there is not a single word that permits intellectually average young men to spend their lives in a yeshiva, avoiding their responsibilities as Jews to support their families and contribute to the broader Jewish community.
There is nothing that allows the masses of religiously observant Jews to avoid the studies and practical training that will enable them to live normal, productive lives. There is not the slightest suggestion that in a Jewish commonwealth, broad swaths of the population may avoid the obligation to defend the Jewish homeland against its enemies with the excuse that study of Jewish texts must be given priority.
Torah study is encouraged, to be sure, but only a tiny, talented elite is exempted from the everyday duties necessary to assure Jewish well-being.
And yet, in the coalition deal reached by this Israeli government, the Haredi establishment – insatiable in its greed – demands more of everything: more years of yeshiva study for all its young men; more exemptions for its boys from the core curriculum (the study of secular subjects such as math, English and science); larger subsidies for older yeshiva students; and more exemptions from military service.
Let us be clear. This arrangement is not only a Zionist outrage and an affront to the majority of Israel’s Jewish citizenry. It is also a religious outrage, contrary to halakha (religious law).
Haredi leaders assert the right of young Haredi men to always study and never serve; they alone can refrain from paying taxes, providing for their families and doing army service. Other Jews, however, are expected to always serve and never study.
But this is not what halakha requires. Religious law applies to all. And again, with the exception of a tiny elite, tradition requires that everyone serves and everyone studies. (And that, by the way, is why I favor mandating a pluralistic model of Bible and Talmud study in Israel’s secular school system.)
In the State of Israel, religious Jews – Haredi and otherwise – should undertake all civil responsibilities that other Jews undertake, no matter their level of observance. To do otherwise, as noted, is not only offensive and infuriating, but a violation of both the spirit and the letter of Jewish law. And it is to make claims never before made in all of Jewish history, with the exception of Haredi politicians in the last half century.
The national religious parties, led by Itamar Ben-Gvirand Bezalel Smotrich, violate Jewish tradition in other, equally egregious, ways. They claim to be liberators of the Land of Israel – a land, they say, that God has promised in its entirety to the Jewish people. But while the Jews have legitimate claims to the land, the divine promise to Abraham and his descendants was not a gratuitous gift. It came with explicit conditions and obligations that the self-proclaimed liberators shamelessly disregard (see Ezekiel 33:23-26).
More important still, they misunderstand the nature of the sacred connection between the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael. That connection derives from mitzvot that Jews are obligated to perform in the Land of Israel (see Mishna Kelim 1:6), and not from a particular set of borders that the Smotriches of the Jewish world have determined, wrongly, are eternal.
If the recent election and partisan deals that followed it teach us anything, it is that Jewish religion in Israel has become far more extreme and entrenched than it already was. Its politicized religious establishment no longer speaks the language of Torah or Zionism, but a bizarre combination of religious zealotry and narrow self-interest.
Let us tell the truth: The Haredi leaders are doing their best to turn their constituents into parasites rather than productive citizens of the State of Israel. And the national religious leaders have become Messianists and extremists, fully capable of leading Israel to war and catastrophe – as Ben-Gvir’s recent jaunt to the Temple Mount has made abundantly clear.
These tendencies, of course, have been apparent for decades.
But what is different this time is that Benjamin Netanyahu, desperate to escape criminal charges, has made concessions so far-reaching that a religious minority of modest size now enjoys once unimaginable control over the welfare of the majority. Bibi says with a sly smile that he will maintain the religious status quo, but he doesn’t mean it for a second.
Consider the following. The coalition agreements contain not only all the demands mentioned above, but include approval of long-delayed legislative proposals that are certain to infuriate and alienate Diaspora Jewry. And more incredible still, to buy off the religious nationalists in his government, Bibi has given them significant control of the police and the army – the pillars of Israel’s security establishment.
And what is the result?
In order to save Bibi’s skin, Israel’s government is advancing a brand of Judaism that combines ghettoized Orthodoxy, Ayatollan religious coercion, and a virulent form of religious Messianism that borders on apostasy and threatens Israel’s very existence.
And in the process, Torah has been lost. Israel, governed by an extremist coalition with neofascist tendencies, has ceased to be a welcoming home to Torah. With such a government, it can no longer be a place of spiritual refinement and Yiddishkeit. It can no longer be a place intent on bringing about a moral and spiritual renaissance of the Jewish people.
American Jews observe these developments in dazed disbelief. And so too do most Israelis.
Israel has non-Jewish citizens, and Jewish Israelis care, I believe, about their welfare and defending their rights.
But for themselves, on some level at least, most Jewish Israelis want to be Jewish Jews, even if they are not sure what that may mean. They want the probity, the justice and the compassion that Torah provides. They want a Jewish answer to the question: Why am I here? And they want their state to nurture the Jewish people everywhere.
And none of these things can happen with this government. Judaism is not primitive, atavistic and racist, but this government presents it in that way.
The only hope for a Jewish state that treasures Torah and is a spiritual home for the Jewish people is for Israel’s solid and sane majority to cast out its current government and replace it with another. And this cannot happen soon enough.