“Zionism is more ruinous than all the false messiahs who arose in our nation,” wrote a group of prominent rabbis in response to Theodore Herzl’s manifesto “The Jewish State”.
Nearly 120 years on, this theological rejection remains nominally intact, while in every other respect – politically, socially, and culturally – ultra-Orthodoxy’s defences have been steadily eroding, as has just been made manifest with its representative becoming a minister in the government of the Jewish state.
The idea of the Jews restoring their ancient state alarmed the rabbis for two reasons. First, they recalled the tale of Shabbetai Zvi, a Jew who in the 1660s was endorsed as the messiah by many rabbis only to see him convert to Islam after the Ottomans arrested him and threatened him with execution. Herzl, those rabbis feared, was that trauma’s rerun.
Secondly, European Jewry had been rapidly secularising, and Zionism was being led by secularists who, the rabbis feared, would intensify the Jews’ abandonment of Orthodoxy. That is how ultra-Orthodox Jewry was formed, as a defiance of both modernity and nationalism.
So unequivocal was this rejection that one great rabbi in Tsarist Russia, Chayim Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk, ordered a total ban of Zionism, which he said “amounts to religion’s destruction and an obstacle to the house of Israel.” Another sage, Shalom Dover Schneersohn, wrote that even if the Zionists had been observant, and “even if there had been room to believe they will achieve their aim, we should not listen to them” because a Jew’s duty was to believe that “our redemption will be brought about by God himself.”
Having represented between them the two halves of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Hassidim and the anti-Hassidim, the two rabbis’ rulings were joined by most contemporary rabbis. Though some rabbis did follow Zionism, and thus founded what is now called modern-Orthodoxy, most observant Jews indeed obeyed the rulings to stay put in Europe, where they were eventually trapped during World War II. So devastated was ultra-Orthodoxy by the Holocaust that many assumed it was gone for good.
Those obituaries proved premature.
Hassidic ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose version of Judaism is more emotional and emphasises rabbinical charisma, painstakingly rebuilt their organisations in the US and Israel, while the anti-Hassidic ultra-Orthodox, whose version of Judaism is more intellectual and juridical, built new Talmudic academies, often naming them after those buried under Europe’s ashes.
Now, seventy years after having been reduced to an anecdote, there are more than a million ultra-Orthodox Jews worldwide, not counting several hundred thousand Jews of Middle Eastern origin who have joined ultra-Orthodoxy in recent decades.
Divided between Israel and the US, with notable pockets also in the UK and Belgium, and smaller communities elsewhere, including Australia, ultra-Orthodoxy became entangled in a web of contradictions. While reviving its communities against all odds, and thus defying history, history also defied ultra-Orthodoxy, as the blossoming of the Jewish state disproved its theology and in fact became indispensable for ultra-Orthodoxy’s own restoration.
Unlike Reform Judaism, which in the 1930s changed its mind about Zionism and formally embraced it, most strands of ultra-Orthodoxy refused to reverse its founders’ anti-Zionism, and unlike modern-Orthodoxy, it refused to cross-fertilise with secularism.
Consequently, as they rehabilitated their communities, ultra-Orthodox rabbis restored the social seclusion and political introversion that underpinned life as they recalled it in prewar Europe.
Socially, they kept their flocks secluded in neighbourhoods around their synagogues, schools, seminars and Talmudic academies while offering no secular education and trying to minimise exposure to the outer world. Politically, they ran for parliament but stayed out of government, assigning their politicians with securing conscription deferments for ultra-Orthodox young men and occasional tax breaks or budgetary transfers for their community.
This was ultra-Orthodoxy’s arrangement during Israel’s first three decades, when it was led by Labor, whose leader, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to grant this community an annual 400 exemptions from military service for full-time religious scholars to help rebuild the institutions of Jewish religious learning lost in Europe. Things changed dramatically when Labor lost power in 1977.
Eager to cement its newfound grip on power, the conservative Likud set out to harness ultra-Orthodoxy as a strategic partner.
The rabbis understood they faced an opportunity to greatly improve their political position, but they didn’t want to seem as if they were abandoning their theological misgivings about the Jewish state. They therefore made a demand and an offer: the demand was to expand draft exemptions; the offer was that they would join the cabinet, but not as ministers.
Likud’s founding leader, Menachem Begin, agreed. Representatives of the ultra-Orthodox party, called at the time Agudat Israel, joined his government as deputy ministers, and another member was made Chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.
Ultra-Orthodox Israel was thus poised to enjoy the best of all worlds: its voters would enjoy expanded military exemptions; its politicians would wield new power; and their rabbis would uphold their purity, because their representatives, though they would participate in cabinet meetings, would not vote. Therefore, they would not share responsibility for the decisions of the State of Israel – which still constituted a religious problem in their eyes.
As the years elapsed, both sides to this agreement suspected they had made a Faustian bargain.
The Likud saw ultra-Orthodox military deferments reach numbers it could not accept. Moreover, since the deferments demanded that the unconscripted not work, but only engage in full-time study, the heavily under-employed ultra-Orthodox community was becoming a budgetary liability and a social time-bomb.
At the same time, ultra-Orthodox leaders were becoming increasingly involved in Israeli political leadership, despite their rabbis’ original hope that they would remain marginal. One of their politicians at one point served as Menachem Begin’s coalition chairman, a position in which he wielded so much power that the media nicknamed him “Israel’s CEO.” That was exceptional. But what became routine was an ultra-Orthodox chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee – its politicians held the office in ten of the last fifteen legislatures.
Though sent there by their rabbis to look after their narrow communal interests, ultra-Orthodox politicians in that position became involved in budgeting dilemmas ranging from highways and hospitals to universities and arms deals. Haphazardly, bearded rabbis in their trademark black coats became part of the general political commotion.
It was part of a broader, creeping acquiescence to the Zionist enterprise’s success.
In recent years, following social upheaval and legislative wrangling discussed in previous editions of the AIR, a steadily growing number of ultra-Orthodox men have been joining the army. Thousands, at the same time, are attending new religiously supervised colleges from which they proceed to the general workplace as programmers, accountants, technicians and various other professions that their rabbis approve as religiously acceptable.
The same erosion has gradually unfolded as more and more ultra-Orthodox politicians served as deputy ministers. As long as they arrived at ministries with relevance to ultra-Orthodox communities, like housing or education, and as long as there was another minister above them, they limited themselves to dealing with their constituents’ needs while the secular minister above them dealt with the rest of the nation.
This changed when the minister above the deputy was nominal, as has happened in the current government, where the theoretical health minister has been the prime minister, while the de-facto minister was the deputy health minister, Rabbi Yaacov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party.
An able administrator who sees a religious mission in curing people, bettering hospitals, improving doctors’ conditions and raising nurses’ pay, the American-born Litzman had served in that position previously and became universally admired for his dedication and positive impact.
That is why Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu felt confident crowning Litzman in the coalition agreement reached in May as “deputy minister with the status of minister.” Appalled by what he saw as a political absurdity, former finance minister Yair Lapid, now leading a major opposition party, appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court demanding a ruling on the legality of Litzman’s job description. The judges were unequivocal: Litzman should either join the cabinet as a full Minister or leave it.
Pressed to decide what Litzman should do, the rabbis who guide his UTJ party convened and made a choice: join.
This watershed ruling went almost unnoticed. Litzman had been a fixture of the governmental landscape anyway. His colleague, Moshe Gafni, already heads the Knesset Finance Committee, as ultra-Orthodox predecessors have done for the better part of four decades. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men have already been joining the IDF in recent years, while ultra-Orthodox men and women are increasingly visible in the general workplace. And almost all of them speak Hebrew as a day-to-day tongue – an idea ultra-Orthodoxy originally rejected as a Zionist defilement of what should be kept sacred.
Now, with a black-hatted Hassid sitting in the Government even as it builds universities that teach “heresy” and arms a military where women carry guns and fly fighter jets – ultra-Orthodoxy has come of age. For better worse, it is part of the Jewish state.
This article is featured in this month’s Australia/Israel Review, which can be downloaded as a free App: see here for more details.