Friday, July 17, 2009

Religious Zionist Orthodoxy in Israel: Who's Kosher, and Who's Treif?

Recently, Michlelet Lifschitz, a well-known teachers' college in Israel appointed Dr. Samuel Glick as its new head and president, scheduled to begin his new position in September. (Full disclosure: I work for the Orot College of Education, which competes directly with Michlelet Lifschitz. So, sadly, I might very well gain significantly from this story.) Everyone was happy. Dr. Glick was a noted expert in education, and had been a member of the Lifschitz board of directors for many years.
Until last week.
Last week, as Ma'ariv reported,
the institution's board went back on its decision to appoint Prof. Shmuel Glick as the school's new head, after rabbis affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox stream that supports religious Zionism, threatened to stop sending their students to the college if the appointment goes through. According to the rabbis, Glick had in the past taught at the Schechter Institute for Jewish studies, which is affiliated with the Masorti (conservative) Movement in Israel. Sources involved in the affair told Ynet at the time that the rabbis' decision to come out against Glick was in fact motivated by long-standing power struggles at the college.
Why do the rabbis have so much power? Because they essentially decide where their students attend college "on the side" while they're studying in yeshiva. Should the rabbis choose to pull their students out of Lifschitz, they would essentially destroy the school. This essentially gives them a great deal of control over the nature of the school.
So, it's not really clear whether these rabbis are actually upset about the fact that Dr. Glick taught in a conservative environment. It probably is a power play, with Dr. Glick caught in the middle. But the power play is really about who controls the religious-Zionist community here in Israel - a very high-stakes game.
The sides in this game of chicken (in which Dr. Glick has been a victim) are, on one side, the "Chardal" rabbis and the yeshivot they represent. Chardal is a Hebrew acronym (actually, the Hebrew word chardal - חרדל - means "mustard") - חרד"ל - which stands for חרדי דתי לאומי - Chareidi Religious Zionist - who on the one hand support the State of Israel and army service, but favor a more right-wing religious stance. On the other side of the debate stand the more liberal דתי לאומי community, who favor a more open and innovative approach to many issues.
These debates have only just begun to play out in the public square, including in the appointment of Dr. Glick. Last week at a widely attended public lecture, Rav Yehoshua Shapira, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Ramat Gan called liberal Orthodox groups such as Kolech, B'nei Akiva and certain Religious Zionist leaders, "Neo-reformists." For an English version of this same issue, see here.
This week another Rav said that he was wrong. Rav Dr. Eliyahu Zini, the head of the Hesder yeshiva in Haifa said that Rav Shapira didn't go far enough. "We're not talking about neo-reformists, but complete reformers."
It's pretty bad out there, with rabbis attacking rabbis, with most people caught squarely in the middle. Many modern-Orthodox Jews stand squarely with the liberal rabbis, who are fighting to try and find a way to integrate Orthodoxy into modern life. They even held a protest last night outside Rav Shapira's yeshiva. But many find themselves uncomfortable with some of the more liberal pronouncements of the left-wing rabbis. Two years ago, Rav Yuval Sherlo, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Hesder Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah issued a ruling on the internet stating that single women could halachically conceive through the use of In-vitro Fertilization - causing a mini-ruckus that still leaves many uncomfortable. This month he said that blind men could "feel" their dates, to know if they wanted to marry them. (Sounds somewhat harmless, but it's pretty controversial. And perhaps even more importantly, why is Yediot Achronot devoting an article to this?)
Who will win? It's very difficult to know. There are a lot of normal, modern Orthodox people in Israel who recoil at the notion of Chareidi-type rabbis imposing their will on the community. On the other hand, Israel is a very traditional place - much more so than America, and liberalism is not popular at all with many religiously-committed Zionist Jews. So, at this point, it's impossible to tell.
What is clear -at least to me, is that while this fight is clearly "for the sake of heaven", with each side standing strongly for its beliefs and fighting for its religious viewpoint, for now, all of us seem to be losing.