The Political Agenda of Israel’s Rabbis and Religious Political Parties

From the days of the Sanhedrin to the Ghettos and shtetls of Europe, Orthodox Rabbis have always tried to legislate by decree all aspects of Jewish culture, economy and education. The result was identity preservation at the expense of economic and cultural stagnation until the ‘haskala’ (the Jewish enlightenment). In modern Israel, secular Jews are to the Ultra-Orthodox what the gentiles were in the diaspora — a despised infidel majority. Now from the neighborhoods of Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim in today’s Israel, the Ultra-Orthodox seek by means of their demographic and clout in coalition politics to reverse the haskalah. Rubin Rothler recounts and examines the realities of rabbinic dictatorship for what they are. These realities, without doubt, will have a formative hand in Israel’s “covenant with death’ predicted by the Hebrew prophets with the coming advent of the Antichrist who will deceive Israel.

Since its inception in the Second Temple era with the ancient Pharisaic sect, Rabbinical Judaism has laid claim to exclusive control in defining Jewish identity and practice. The movement emerged as a presiding faction after the Temple’s destruction in 70 AD due to a peculiar set of historical circumstances, which culminated in fomenting an environment that was ripe for Rabbinism’s adaptive trait to take root and flourish. The Jewish nation faced a comparable predicament to their ancestor’s challenge after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and they were exiled. Namely: how to preserve Judaism in the absence of the Temple sacrificial system. This precedent laid the groundwork for developing an alternative blueprint. The focus of Jewish religious practice became the synagogue. The family table stood in place of the altar. Prayer substituted the sacrificial offerings.

So, the Pharisee and subsequent Rabbinical establishment were essentially building upon the institutional framework that had its origin during the Babylonian Exile. The Rabbis claimed that they derived their authority from the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה, “The Men of the Great Assembly”) which according to Rabbinic tradition was consecrated by Ezra the Scribe to govern the Jews who returned from the Babylonian Exile. It was comprised of 120 members that apparently included prophets such as Hosea and Micah, as well as scribes. It instituted the prayers and benedictions of Jewish liturgy and set the Biblical canon. Intriguingly, the modern Israeli parliament is named the “Kenneset” after this body and its number of representatives is likewise correspondingly fixed at 120.

The other major period player, the Sadducees, were entirely ensconced in Temple affairs. They managed the priestly bureaucracy and had less involvement in communal life outside Jerusalem. Consequently, they found it difficult to carve out a relevant social role after the Temple’s destruction. There is some academic debate over whether there was historical continuity between the Sadducees and Karaites. This group was the only competing force that surfaced in subsequent centuries to challenge the Rabbi’s Supremacy before the enlightenment. Like the Sadducees, they rejected the Rabbinical Oral Law which came to be codified in the Talmud as authoritative. The Karaite movement survives to this day, albeit in a greatly reduced size. Rabbinical Judaism regards them as a heretical sect. It should also be mentioned that most scholars have concluded that the early Jewish followers of Jesus became marginalized in 

132 AD when they refused to recognize Bar Kochba as Messiah and to fight in the rebellion under his banner.

Nevertheless, throughout the age of Rabbinical hegemony within Jewish communities, non-conformist individuals arose on the scene. Being perceived as a threat to the powers that be, they were swiftly eliminated. A notable example who has reached the pages of history is the great Rationalist Philosopher Baruch Spinoza. His works are regarded as heralding the dawn of the age of the Enlightenment. After refusing to recant his work, the rabbinical authorities in Amsterdam excommunicated and expelled him from the Jewish community stating amongst other scourges: “…Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up”.

However, the Rabbinate couldn’t suppress the progress of rational inquiry which Spinoza set into motion that started the European Enlightenment and culminated in a Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). This movement threatened the Rabbinate’s hold on education and power within civic life in the ghettos. In so much as oppressive Gentile authorities segregated Jews in the ghettos of Europe, the Rabbis were constructively complicit -in that they had a vested interest in keeping their congregations ignorant of the outside world. Knowledge was rapidly increasing. As were new scientific discoveries. The intellectual opinion was being informed by philosophical scepticism and rationalism. Under the influence of this climate, Haskalah proponents embraced the academic study of Scripture and the Talmud that wasn’t filtered through the dogmatic lens of Rabbinic commentaries. They fought for Jewish emancipation and full participation in mainstream society, which resulted in Jews beginning to enter the professions. With this, the hitherto irrevocable presumption of Rabbinical infallibility came into question. The stage was now set for more liberal streams of Judaism to sprout forth, starting with the Reform movement in Germany where at the time Jews enjoyed the greatest freedom. 

The Haskalah’s final phase paved the way for Jewish nationalism in the 1880s. As in its relations to previous divergent movements, most of the Orthodox Rabbinical establishment opposed Herzl’s Zionism as being against the Divine will. According to their theology, only the Messiah could end the exile and re-establish the Jewish State. It was just after Israel was created that Haredi (Orthodox Jewish) leaders deemed it pragmatic to arrive at an arrangement with the secular government. Which leads us to our present analysis of how we got to where we are. A persistent theme historically has been Rabbinism’s intolerance towards differing expressions of Judaism and its desire to assert sole control over the Jewish community. These propensities continue to be manifested in modern Israel.

Ben Gurion and the other founders struggled with the dilemma of Jewish identity: that it entails ethnicity being interwoven with religion. In fact, arguably religion plays a fundamental role in preserving the nation. Thus, it was considered necessary to accommodate the Haredi community by exempting their men from conscription and assigning to their rabbis a critical juridical position in the Family Courts system. Several undesirable sociological ramifications followed. The first was to create an ever-increasing demographic of young men who are unfairly immune from military service (at the expense of the non-Haredi) all the while depleting State resources by having their Talmudic studies subsidized. This situation continues throughout the years of working life. The second was to enshrine a parallel legal system with a monopoly over marriage and divorce proceedings whose decisions are judicially enforceable by civil and criminal sanctions. This then fostered an environment which discriminates against Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism. Only Orthodox conversions are considered valid for purposes of determining whether one is Jewish and hence eligible to marry another Jew. These are just some of the ways in which Haredi ideology has hijacked Israeli family law and has sidelined contrary voices that suggest an alternative interpretation of Jewish practice. There are myriad minutiae implications to this entanglement. But crucially it poses a real internal threat to Israeli democracy by promoting an insidious theocratic agenda that will not stop until it firmly holds the reins of power.

History has taught us to be wary of approaching any totalitarian system. Those who profess to have a model by which we can govern every facet of our lives. That they have a remarkable plan with all the answers. Let there be no doubt. The Haredim want to run the show in Israel. They strive for a Halachic State. In areas where their population has increased to the point of majority, there have been numerous instances of attempts to curtail the rights of other groups. Roads in Jerusalem are routinely blocked off on the Sabbath. There have been revolting instances of gender-segregated sidewalks which were ‘policed’ by spitting Talmudic students. The Haredi scheme is most definitely far removed from what Israel’s founders envisioned and how the majority of Israelis desire to be governed today.

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