Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Are we One Movement Anymore? The Problem and Challenge of Religious Zionism

by Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of Student Recruitment

Following the (recently cancelled) announcement of early elections here in Israel, the Religious Zionist movement found itself in a familiar position: unprepared. After years of leadership in the Knesset, the religious Zionist movement splintered over ideological grounds into two generally distinct groups which then aligned themselves into distinct political parties. Habayit Hayehudi places its emphasis on religious Zionist activity throughout Israel while stressing the importance of involvement within greater Israeli society. On the other hand, the Ichud Haleumi (sadly, they haven't really updated their website in three years! If you'd really like to see just how sad the split it, see here.) finds itself more attuned to rabbinic instruction and direction, and places a far greater emphasis on settlement of the Land of Israel over other values.
While the split reflects genuine differences in a very diverse community, it also has significantly weakened the Religious Zionist community's influence and political clout. Instead of one political party with eight Knesset seats (and the power, influence and financial wherewithal that brings), the greater movement founds itself with two parties of four seats each, one of which found itself a member of the majority in the soon-defunct government (with the "important" portfolio of Science and Technology – and yes, I am being sarcastic when I say “important”) while the other remained in the opposition, left with little to no political power at all. The split truly cost us all. The question we must contemplate is: Can we find a way to reunite? Can we restore the power that we should have (and badly need), or, due to our unwillingness to find common ground, will we continue to diminish our influence and thereby fail to properly influence broader Israeli society?
Orot's Amadot Conference Schedule
At Orot’s recent Amadot Conference, Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikvah participated in a panel that addressed this vexing question: Are we one movement? And, more importantly, can we remain a united force, or have we become so divided that we can no longer operate as a single unit.
Rav Sherlo made a number of fascinating points that I’d like to share.
Legitimacy: One of the critical measures of whether groups have split irreversibly is how they relate to each other. Put another way, do they relate to one another as legitimate? That is the difference between machloket – dispute – and division. As long as both groups legitimize each other, they can remain united. Yet, if one group refuses to acknowledge that the position of the other might be wrong – but still remains legitimate, and instead insists that the position of the other is not legitimate, then they have lost any sense of common ground, and rupture is inevitable.
Marriage: Do groups within the framework marry each other? Rav Sherlo pointed out that the Mishnah (Yevamot 1:4) emphasizes that despite all of the great disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, לא נמנעו מלישא זה עם זה – “they did not refrain from marrying with each other.” Can we same the same about different Religious Zionist groups today? He explained that he teaches at Migdal Oz (a rather left-wing women’s seminary), and he has yet to witness a wedding between a Migdal Oz girl and a yeshiva student from Har Hamor (a very right-wing yeshiva). This is a matter for concern. To what degree have we split ideologically so far, that little, if any interaction remains between the two groups that fall under the broad umbrella of Religious Zionism?
Language: The language of ideology doesn’t lend itself to compromise. Ideology articulates a specific vision, a worldview which represents idealism in its purest sense. It speaks to the world which we would create – if only we had the power to actualize our dreams. Platforms of ideology don’t often include words like love, compromise, mutual respect and the like. Imagine a marriage based solely on ideology, where words like those didn’t exist. How long would such a marriage last? Not long.
Rav Sherlo noted that we also suffer from two mutually exclusive beliefs. We believe that the world not only wants what we have to offer, but is waiting for us to save it. We have the truth – the combination of Torah and real life; of Religiosity and Zionism, of spirituality and worldliness – that provides the proper path for the Jewish Nation. Yet, at the very same time we also believe that the same world hates us: the secular press can’t stand us; the European Union is trying to topple us; the Israeli Supreme Court can’t stand us; the Chareidim attack us at every turn.
So which do we really believe? Does the world look to us to save it, or is it trying to bring us down? 
Rav Sherlo suggested that the solution to all of these challenges lies in a single word: Relax. We need to find the proper balance that pulls on Religious Zionism at all times. Our community defines itself in a kind of musical tone: Religious-Zionism; Yeshivat-Hesder; Kibbutz-Hadati. (He compared it to a metronome, which sways from side to side in rhythm.) Each side pulls on the other. Is it Religious? Or is it Zionism? Is it a Yeshiva? Or is it Hesder (part of the army)?
If we can learn to Relax, and see the value inherent in each of these seemingly contradictory terms, then the tension between them has the potential to draw us even closer together. In fact, the fact that the two parties formally agreed this week to run as a single party gives cause for hope. (Although the proof is in the pudding. With elections now pushed off for another year, a lot can happen between now and next October.)
On the other hand, if we cannot or will not learn to relax, and instead insist on remaining absolutists; if we continue to insist that we can only define ourselves in the most literal sense, then the forces pulling on the two sides of Religious Zionism have the chilling potential to irrevocably tear us apart.


  1. NU isn't a religious (national or other) party. Like the dead Tichiya party, it's a Jewish one promoting Jewish Rights in all of the Land of Israel. It welcomes all Jews as long as they believe in the basic idea. Ketzele would have had preferred being offered to take over NRP, no matter what they now call it, but the rabbis there are glued to their seats.

  2. Reb Reuven,

    You express a beautiful sentiment, and in terms of the idea of respecting the other while disagreeing on principles, I think you are quite right. As you say, we should be seeking unity in our camp, not splitting it.

    So let your ears hear what your mouth is saying. Why do you draw the boundary at the "Religious Zionist" camp? That, too, is an artificial division in Klal Yisrael. What should be wrong with a Merkaz Harav bachur making a shidduch with a Beis Yaakov girl? I find it disturbing that you define such a thing as a religious Zionist "camp" at all - why is that not לא תתגודדו? By all means, have your opinions about any matter you want, from settlements to social policy - but don't define yourself as a separate "camp" within Klal Yisrael, based on those opinions!

    Politically, why should we even have "Religious Zionist" splinter parties at all? What good do a handful of D-L MKs do, when they are doomed forever to be junior partners in a coalition, impotent to determine national policy except by empty threats to leave the government? IMO, NU and Mafdal should both merge themselves into the Likud, where as factions within Israel's ruling party, like Feiglin, they will have the ability to affect governance directly. Ask yourself who Netanyahu fears more: Feiglin or Ketzaleh.

    This is relevant to your "unity" theme, because the very existence of "Religious Zionist" parties distinct from the mainstream parties is an indication that they feel themselves separate, different, and unwilling/unable to be part of the mainstream. The splinter parties have no hope or goal of taking leadership in Israel, and act as narrow, sectoral-interest parties whose only purpose in Knesset is to negotiate the biggest possible piece of the pie for their separate, distinct, population. They are not there for the good of the entire people, only for "their" people. That's divisive. Join the Likud, and by all means push from within for your interests - but as a part of the ruling party, you are there to influence the governance of the entire country to the good, not just grab scraps of the budget for your own causes.

    Bottom line, we are all Jews, no matter where we live, what politics we espouse or which Rabbi we ask for guidance. We should be breaking down divisions, not reinforcing them. Like this.

  3. Shaul,
    Thanks for your insightful comments, which raise an issue that I often struggle with. I will hopefully respond with a post about this topic soon.
    Reuven Spolter


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