The coalition agreement between the National Religious Party (NRP) and the virulently anti-religious Shinui party is being described as a return to the NRP’s traditional role in Israeli politics. To understand that statement we must first know a little history.
Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik once described the NRP’s role as that of a brake on a car careening rapidly down hill. That meant, inter alia, providing a certain patina of Jewish forms to the State of Israel. From the point of view of national religious ideology this was necessary in order to grant credibility to the theological claim that the State of Israel represents a decisive step in the process of Redemption. Thus the Chief Rabbinate, with control over all matters of personal status, was largely a creation of the national religious movement.
As a corollary of imbuing the state with theological significance many national religious rabbis viewed their role as that of halachic problem solvers for the state. The late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, for instance, campaigned successfully for the position of chief rabbi on the basis of a promise to ``solve" the problem of a brother and sister whom several panels of Chief Rabbinate’s beis din had already determined to be mamzerim.
With the advent of the settlement movement in the wake of the 1967 War, however, the traditional focus of the national religious movement began to shift. Led by Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz Harav, the most idealistic elements in the national religious camp channelled all their energies into the settlement of all areas of Eretz Yisrael. That process accelerated with the election of a Likud government led by Menachem Begin in 1977, for Begin spoke the language of the Greater Eretz Yisrael
By the onset of Oslo, however, as the settlements in Yehudah, Shomron, and Gaza began to be perceived by a large majority of the Israeli population as a barrier to peace with the Palestinians, the NRP found itself increasingly marginalized in Israeli politics. The party’s political strength has been constantly waning over the last decade, and many within the movement have spoken of an internal crisis.
The new government certainly represents an about face for the NRP from its long-standing role as the political representative of the settlement movement. It is quite clear that the NRP is powerless within the new government to protect the settlements in any way. Should Prime Minister Sharon decide to dismantle settlements he can count on the support of the opposition Labor party, and therefore need not concern himself with threats from the NRP and right-wing National Unity party.
NRP, then, did not ally with Shinui and enter the government to protect the settlements, but rather to ensure itself a position as the only religious party in the government. By doing so, it hopes to protect its own budgets and recapture the voters that it has been losing to the chareidi parties, particularly Shas, for over a decade.
The alliance with Shinui has been defended by NRP leaders as a return to the party’s traditional role of providing a bridge between secular and religious Israelis. Supporters of Meimad, a small left-wing party within the national religious movement and allied with Labor, hailed the NRP-Shinui pact for effectively adopting its long-time slogan ``more Judaism less coercion."
Outgoing Meimad MK Yehudah Gilad provided crucial insights into the meaning of this slogan in a Jerusalem Post op-ed last week. He began by attributing the loss of popular support for the NRP to the public’s identification of religious Zionism with the chareidi world that has been setting ``the tone for religious life in this country by initiating legislation that antagonized the rest of the public." That claim is nonsense of two counts. First, it fails to acknowledge the significance of the NRP’s identification with the settlement movement as the principal cause of its decline. Second, there has been no religious legislation passed in the last decade, except one bill to restore the longstanding ban on the importation of non-kosher meat that was struck down by the Supreme Court. The only other piece of religious legislation, the so-called Conversion Law, sought only to preserve the Chief Rabbinate’s exclusive authority over conversions in Israel.
Gilad, who is also rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi, makes clear that what he means by ``more Judaism" has nothing to do with halacha, and is, at best, the preservation of a certain ``kosher-style" in the public square. Thus he writes, ``Among secularists, there has always been a majority supporting the public expressions of Judaism – through its symbols, holidays, etc. Its opposition is not to the Jewish nature of the state, but to Jewish law being forced on it."
Gilad concludes that it is now possible to solve many of the issues ``previously considered problematic . . . with relative ease." In this vein, he advocates, without even a trace of ambivalence or tension that ``while other businesses should be closed on Shabbat, places off entertainment should not." In addition, he advocates that public transportation should operate on Shabbos in some areas.
Amazing how easy it is to reduce secular-religious tensions and create a calmer atmosphere when unconstrained by halacha. One wonders, however, what is this ``more Judaism" that is so easily divorced from halacha.
IN ONE AREA, the national religious movement never strayed from its role as the halachic problem-solver for the State: conversion. The common element of all these proposed solutions, however, has been a preference for halachic form over halachic content. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Conservative and Reform movements began to push actively for recognition of their converts in Israel. To relieve the pressure, leading figures at Yeshiva University, working in conjunction with elements within the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, proposed a system of joint conversion panels. Those panels would be composed of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, and would recommend candidates for conversion to an Orthodox beis din, which would oversee the formal ritual elements of conversion.
From the beginning, it was clear that the proposal could only satisfy the Reform and Conservative movements if their candidates for conversion were guaranteed ratification by the beis din. And that, in turn, would only happen if the beis din turned a blind eye to the fact that the candidates affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements were making no commitment to a life of mitzvah observance. In other words, the process depended on a shady deal from the start: In return for preservation of the halachic forms of tevilah and bris milah in front of a Orthodox beis din, the beis din would agree not to ask any questions about the candidate’s commitment to mitzvos.
The joint beis din plan was ultimately withdrawn after being prematurely (from its proponents point of view) exposed to the glare of publicity. The conversion issue, however, was far from dead. Indeed pressure for a ``solution" began to mount from an entirely new quarter. Throughout the ‘90s, the Israeli government granted citizenship to half a million non-Jews from the former Soviet Union. From the standpoint of the Israeli government, the presence of so many people, neither Jewish nor Arab, creates a massive problem.
Such a large number of non-Jews also created a tension for national religious theology. How could the claim be sustained that the state is the beginning of the redemption if the percentage of Jews living in Eretz Yisrael is constantly dropping. (At present only 72% of those living in Israel are Jewish.) Instead of fostering the ingathering of the exiles, the state appeared to be fostering the creation of a new eruv rav.
To many thinkers in the national religious world leniency on conversion appeared to be the only way around the theological tension. Here the interests of the government and major segments of the national religious world converged. One of the country’s Leading attorney and one of the country’s most prominent wearers of a kippah seruga, Yaacov Neeman, was appointed the chairman of a government commission to find solutions.
The Neeman Commission recommended the creation of conversion institutes, in which the students would be taught by rabbis from all ``streams" of Jewry, with the actual conversion remaining under the auspicies of the Chief Rabbinate. The scheme was doomed from the start by its own internal incoherence. Conversion is a commitment, not a Jewish literacy test. How could students being taught by rabbis who reject a commitment to mitzvah observance be expected to make the requisite commitment?
The results were predictable. Despite an investment of nearly 40 million shekels by the government, the conversion institutes, headed by national religious educator Binyamin Ish Shalom have had only 500 graduates accepted for conversion by the Chief Rabbinate. All those 500 would likely have been accepted if they had gone through the existing procedures of the Chief Rabbinate. Indeed thousands of others have been converted by the Chief Rabbinate in the same period.
In order to gloss over his own failure, Ish-Shalom has accused the Chief Rabbinate of having been too strict in demanding of converts evidence of a lifestyle consistent with halachic observance. This cry has fallen on receptive ears. With the formation of the new government, Prime Minister Sharon, operating in conjunction with upper echelons in the IDF and the Jewish Agency, has made the conversion of thousands of non-Jews from the FSU a national priority.
All the sudden a host of plans are afoot to reach designated numerical targets. The IDF has announced plans to create special rabbinical panels with the goal of converting 3,000 soldiers a year (over the opposition of Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, the army chief rabbi), and the Jewish Agency is setting up special quickie four-week conversion courses in Eastern Europe. How numerical quotas can be established for what is one of the most difficult exercises of free choice a person can ever make has not been explained?
The Jewish Agency’s quickie conversion course and the IDF conversion panels will both be staffed by rabbis from the national religious movement eager to take up the new/old role as halachic problem solvers for the state.
Efforts to introduce thousands of false converts into Klal Yisrael, then, are likely to be the first example of ``more Judaism" under the new approach of the significant segments of the national religious movement.