Many a fine political novel has centered around a young, idealistic reformer who enters politics determined to hold firm to his principles without compromise, only to discover that to get anything done he needs to make all sorts of deals. Will his first deal send him headlong on the path towards jaded cynicism and even corruption? Or, on the other hand, will he remain an ineffectual idealist, sustained on the fumes of his own self-righeousness, unable to take into account the needs or opinions of others?
In truth, the tension between ideological purity and securing practical goals is one that we all face in one context or another throughout our lives. Rav Dessler writes, for instance, that at the terrifying moment when Yitzchak Avinu affirmed the blessings to Yaakov Avinu, he had to abandon his lifetime hanhaga that all Divine assistance should be earned according to the exacting standards of Middas HaDin. He acted contrary to the worldview of a lifetime immediately upon sensing that even Yaakov Avinu and his descendants would need Divine chesed in the form of the berachos.
A LITTLE MORE THAN A DECADE AGO, distinguished law professor Ruth Gavison and national religious rosh yeshiva Rabbi Yaakov Meidan formulated a proposed pact for Israel on issues of state and religion. Among the proposals was a ban on commercial activity on Shabbos, coupled with permission for places of entertainment to remain open and public transportation.
As a practical matter, it is arguable, and even likely, that such an agreement would result in less chilul Shabbos than exists at present and might even create a greater awareness of Shabbos among secular Israelis. But despite the potential benefits, it is unthinkable that any chareidi MK would ever support such a proposal. Hashem has not appointed any of us an apotropos (guardian) on Shabbos to enter into compromises on its behalf. All the practical calculations in the world will not confer upon us the power to rewrite hilchos Shabbos or to support in any way their abrogation.
SOMETIMES, HOWEVER, THE HALACHIC PROSCRIPTIONS are far less clear and the practical consequences great. Just such a choice is currently facing many American chareidim with respect to voting in the elections for the World Zionist Congress (WZC). Voting closes on April 30.
In order to vote, one must subscribe to the so-called Jerusalem Program, which affirms, inter alia, that "a Jewish, Zionist, democratic and secure state of Israel is an expression of the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future." Moreover, the only candidates for which a chareidi Jew seeking to have a positive impact could realistically vote is the united Religious Zionist slate.
By definition, chareidim do not identify as national religious. They do not, for instance, refer in their prayers to the State of Israel as "reishit tzmichat geulateinu – the first flowering of the Redemption." And they tend to view political Zionism as having distorted traditional Jewish self-understanding by seeking to found Jewish nationhood on some basis other than the Torah. And yet if I were living in the United States, I don't know that ideological purity would prevent me from signing the Jerusalem Program.
It requires no affirmation of the State of Israel's theological significance. For better the worse, the establishment of the state was a seminal event in Jewish history – even the Brisker Rav referred to it as a "smile from Heaven." And the State of Israel is almost certain to play a crucial role in the life of the Jewish people until the coming of Mashiach.
The security of the state and its nearly six million Jewish residents ought to be of great concern to every Jew, and certainly to one who believes in the eternal mission of the Jewish people. I'm confident the average American chareidi Jew, including anti-Zionist Satmar Chassidim, are far more concerned about the physical security of the Jews of Israel than are most non-observant Jews, including those who being urged to vote in the coming WZC elections by the likes of J Street.
Though the workings of the WZC are little understood by the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jews, the coming elections are far from insignificant. The World Zionist Organization (WZO) of which WZC serves as the governing body has an annual budget of close to one billion dollars a year, and exercises a great deal of control over the Jewish National Fund, which owns 13% of the land in Israel, and the Jewish Agency and its half a billion dollar annual budget. (Frankly, I'm no expert on all the details.)
One thing I do know is that the American Reform and Conservative movements are taking the elections very seriously and pouring millions into the campaign. Here's the site of the Reform campaign: "If you care about the Reform movement in Israel. If you support egalitarian prayer. If you believe in freedom of religion, the right of Reform rabbis to conduct marriage, divorce, burial and conversion, here is your chance to make a difference."
The Conservative platform calls for State acceptance of all conversions and weddings of Conservative rabbis; state funding for non-Orthodox rabbis; and developing the entire Temple Wall Plaza to allow for egalitarian prayer."
The Reform and Conservative campaigns are closely connected to the American Jewish Committee's recently formed Jewish Religious Equality Center, which explicitly seeks to deprive the Israeli Chief Rabbinate of its sole control over all issues of personal status.
One prominent Israeli rosh yeshiva and Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member recently told Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice-president emeritus of Young Israel, that it is crucial to do everything possible to prevent Reform from gaining a foothold in Israel. Clearly, the Reform and Conservative movements view the WZC election as one such foothold. So should we.
A very large percentage of the WZO budget -- into the hundreds of millions -- is spent on formal and informal education programs in Israel and in the Diaspora. Those monies and the emissaries sent by the WZO are roughly apportioned according to representation in the World Zionist Congress. So the vote will determine how many Jewish children are exposed – often for the first time – to Torah educators and a Torah education and how many will be exposed to kefirah. As Rabbi Lerner, who has been active in pushing for a large Orthodox turnout, puts it, "The budgets are going to be allocated one way or the other. A failure to vote doesn't just mean that they will not go to Orthodox programs or to sending Orthodox emissaries; it means those same monies will go to Reform."
SO FAR WE HAVE BEEN discussing only impact of the elections on direct budgetary allocations. But there is an indirect impact of the elections as well. The Israeli government and many Knesset members treat the World Zionist Congress as if it were somehow a reflection of Diaspora Jewry – a far-fetched conclusion given that only 75,000 American Jews voted in the last WZC elections.
They are constantly told that 90% of American Jewry is Conservative or Reform, and that if those movements are not granted equality in Israel, American Jewry will be totally alienated from Israel.
These claims are nonsense. For one thing, many of those who self-identify as Reform use the term as a synonym for the minimum religious identification. Moreover, according to the most recent PEW Study, little more than half of American Jews even self-identify as Reform or Conservative – 33% and 24%, respectively. And only a quarter of American Jews belong to a Reform or Conservative congregation – 11% and 14%, respectively. Less than one-fifth of Reform congregants attend services even once a month.
The fastest growing segment of American Jewry consists of those who describe themselves as having no religion. That minimal religious identity is reflected in institutional decline. Already in the 1990s, Jewish organizational membership fell 20% in a decade, and the number of households contributing to Federation by 30%.
With an intermarriage rate of 71% among non-Orthodox Jews, non-Orthodox American Jewry is in a death spiral. The future of American Jewry is Orthodox. Among synagogue-affiliated families there are more Orthodox children than Conservative and Reform combined. According to the Pew Report, the majority of Jews who have married other Jews over the last eight years are Orthodox, and of children under five being raised exclusively Jewish, again the majority are Orthodox.
(The sole footnote to this unhappy landscape is Chabad, which operates 940 Chabad houses nationwide. A recent survey found 27% of Miami Jews involved with Chabad and 47% of those under 35.)
These facts must be known to Israeli leaders and legislators, when they find themselves threatened with dire repercussions if they don't adopt the pluralist agenda. And the WZC elections are one way of doing so. The 25% vote for the Religious Zionist slate in the last election helped in this regard.
The Reform and Conservative movements are desperately looking to "religions pluralism in Israel" as a torch to ignite their apathetic youth. That's the appeal of Anat Hoffman and Women of the Wall's offer of "freedom rides" in Israel.
But that approach puts the cart before the horse. If young Reform Jews can't be bothered to go to temple in the United States, why should they be eager to do so at the Kotel. If their own religious rites have no intrinsic value in their eyes, why should promoting them in Israel be so important to them.
SHOULD CHAREIDI JEWS make the minimal effort needed to vote for the national religious slate in the World Zionist Congress elections? I don't know. I'm no posek. But I do think the arguments in favor are strong enough to merit consulting the rav to whom one looks for da'as Torah.