Yaakov Rivlin, one of the most respected commentators of the haredi system, recently expressed an insight that some would call historic. “The national-religious are about to take the place of the haredim in the religious and political systems of life in this country, and we must resign ourselves to that,” he wrote in the haredi newspaper BaKehila [In the community]. “We can only hope that they will treat us better than we treated them when we controlled the appointments and jobs and left them not even crumbs: not in the city rabbinates, the religious councils or the local authorities. When the next government takes office, we will pay for the humiliating way we treated them. And we will pay dearly.”
The unusual alliance between Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid is not only making it difficult for the prime minister to form the next government, it has also been a sharp slap in the face for the haredi public. “How did we get to a situation where the Mizrachniks (the national religious) feel closer to Lapid than to us?” asked the broadcasters on the haredi radio stations. “How should we treat them now?” members of the community asked one another. They dared to ask, “Is this revenge?”
In the last elections, the haredi public, which had been used to serving as the deciding factor in the Knesset with their bloc of 15 to 18 seats (Shas and United Torah Judaism) realized that their bloc was now meaningless. The national-religious public received significant electoral power and used it to change direction, moving toward the party that was considered avowedly secular and led by a man to whom the haredi parties refer as “Tommy’s son” — Yair Lapid.
The MKs of Habayit Hayehudi are careful about using the word “revenge.” While they state firmly that they want to preserve the world of Torah study — contrary to the constant accusations by the haredim — most of them agree that they cannot help feeling vindicated. “For years, the haredim treated the national-religious sector like the hired help, and that’s without even mentioning their snobbery in matters of Jewish law,” a Habayit Hayehudi MK said. “Look how Rabbi [Avraham] Sherman annulled the conversions that were done by Rabbi Haim Druckman, a giant of the national-religious world, without even blinking. Look at how they pushed Rabbi Yaakov Ariel out of the leadership of the Chief Rabbinate in favor of Rabbi Yona Metzger, who was the emissary of Rabbi Eliashiv.”
In addition, there’s the uproar that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the Shas organ, Yom Leyom [Day to Day], caused when they called Bennett and his people names such as “Gentiles,” “heretics” and “Amalek.” The national-religious sector has evidently not forgiven them for it. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who is not considered “religious-lite” but rather almost haredi himself, was quoted as saying openly, “My heart is still hurt, pained and weeping over those statements. They’re hard to ignore, and the people of Shas should apologize.”
“Joining the wicked ones”
The new state of affairs has created situations that seemed impossible until recently. Over the past few weeks, the Shas-controlled haredi radio station Kol Berama has heaped scorn on Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, a loyal representative of the “Hardal” community — a national-religious community with a strong haredi flavor. Rabbi Ben-Dahan served for 20 years as director-general of the rabbinical courts and before that as the close assistant of the late Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu.
At the beginning of the interview, Rabbi Ben-Dahan was asked how he had reached the point of choosing Lapid over his haredi brothers. Ben-Dahan answered simply, “The one who is keeping us from being shut out of the coalition is Yair Lapid. He tells the prime minister that if Habayit Hayehudi is not part of the coalition, he will not be either.”
“The haredi parties did not condition their entry into the government on the entry of the Habayit Hayehudi party. If they had done so, the situation might be different,” he admitted. Very quickly, Ben-Dahan became the object of a smear campaign by Shas, complete with hints that he was really a non-Jew or a Reform Jew. “Who do you think you are? You’re joining the wicked ones,” they told him.
Another change in the controversy this week was Naftali Bennett’s visit to the Hebron and Mir yeshivas. Speaking anonymously, the rabbis in the national-religious sector expressed dissatisfaction with the visit. “They want to show that Naftali is really a ‘non-Jew’ and a ‘heretic’ who doesn’t understand the Torah world. So they do something to him that they usually do only with secular people — they take him to see what yeshiva students look like,” the rabbis said.
The rabbis continued: “He apparently didn’t understand that he was being humiliated. What — he isn’t familiar with the Torah world? He doesn’t know what they do in yeshivas? He played into their hands. They treated him like a secular person who came to see what the Torah world was like. It was nonsense.” On the other hand, MK Uri Orbach refused to get upset over the visit. “Religious Zionism doesn’t need the recognition of the haredi world. It’s nice to visit yeshivas. If they invite me, I’ll go.”
“We don’t need to visit yeshivas to know that Rashi and the Tosafot are on the opposite sides of a page of the Talmud,” he continues. “The haredim think they need to tell us what the Torah world is, and that’s ridiculous. The haredim don’t understand that the game has changed and that they need to get out of their bubble. It’s all a show, since in any case there’s no intention of drafting the yeshiva students from Ponevezh or Mir, but the ones who want to be drafted.”
Asher Gold, spokesman for Ariel Attias of Shas, says the visit actually benefited Bennett. “The yeshiva people made a mistake. As a rule, Bennett was seen as an opponent of the yeshiva world, but in public opinion, after a visit like that he looks to the outside world like a friend of the yeshiva world. He also gets the better of the yeshivas and comes out smelling like a rose,” Gold said.
Another warning light went on in the haredi sector this week about the maiden Knesset speech of secular MK Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid, in which she showed proficiency in the Talmud. The haredi web portal Kikar Hashabbat [The Shabbat Square] described it as an “existential threat,” elaborating: “Calderon and the Yesh Atid gang do not want to wipe out the Torah of the Jewish people. They do not want to turn us into a nation like all other nations. On the contrary: they want to increase Torah study, they want to make the teachings of Maimonides accessible to everyone, and they demand ‘Talmud study for everybody’ — and therein lies the greatest danger of all.”
Bennett’s connection with that same group of secular students of Torah added more fuel to the blaze of anger against the national-religious community and raised the issue of the level of their observance. One high-ranking haredi rabbi from Jerusalem, who is also identified with the national-religious public and even holds classes in national-religious neighborhoods, sounded very troubled this week.
“In the past, I sat with Rabbi Avraham Shapira (the former chief rabbi and one of the highest-ranking people in the national-religious world — Y.S.). We were consulting about how to inject more Torah into religious Zionism. Reb Avrum said that while we’d succeeded in injecting persistence in Torah study into the Zionist yeshivas, we hadn’t succeeded in kindling the fire of Torah there,” he admitted.
He said he was not trying to make light of the haredi world. “We talked about mutual understanding, from within the same camp. One of the conclusions was that we hadn’t focused enough on studying the work Nefesh Hahayim [The Soul of Life] by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, which is a guide to serving God. All the yeshiva heads of the Lithuanian community knew its main points by heart and ran their yeshivas according to it. But the religious Zionist community didn’t concentrate on it, maybe because they concentrated on the works of Rabbi [Abraham Isaac] Kook.
“That missing fire is what causes the spiritual problems in the religious Zionist world,” the rabbi said. “The problems are tougher than you think.” He says the problem stems from a difference between the two communities — the haredim act only according to their rabbis’ instructions, while members of the national-religious community only consult with their rabbis.
"The real results are in"
The rabbi says he has no interest in insulting any particular sector. He makes these statements, he says, out of pain and concern for the religious-Zionist public, with which he has a close relationship. But despite this, he does not hold back from criticizing Bennett. “Some people are insulted by what Naftali Bennett is doing. They have allowed a man to lead the religious Zionist movement when it is not certain that he observes all the mitzvot in his home.
“Yair Lapid came down from the podium after saying harsh things in his speech, and Bennett hugged him in front of everybody. He is bringing the spiritual level of religious Zionism down to the abyss. It’s a disaster. He’s a tinok shenishbah [a Jewish child raised by non-Jews, and therefore not held responsible for his lack of religious observance]. He doesn’t know the Torah. It’s true that for years they were disregarded in the most humiliating way; they were tricked. But even if the politicians did that, what did the students at the Ponevezh Yeshiva ever do? Why are they taking it out on the tens of thousands of innocent yeshiva students? Most of them don’t keep track of politics at all.”
But MK Uri Orbach says that the gap between the haredim and the national-religious community is not necessarily the reason why the latter came close to Lapid.
“The real results are in — or the truth in the results. The haredim systematically pushed the members of the religious-Zionist community out of every state institution that has to do with religious affairs. In the last elections, the national-religious and traditional populations said that they didn’t want the haredi character involved in religious issues anymore. They wanted something different, and we helped that happen. The exclusive control over religious life by haredim is over. I’m not saying that in a threatening tone, but in a friendly tone. It’s what the public wanted.” Orbach adds that the uproar has to do with more than just who gets the jobs. “It’s a matter of principle. We will appoint people who identify with their work. If you’re in the rabbinate, you can’t promote observance of the dietary laws according to the Beit Yosef school, but according to the rabbinate. The rabbinate has to respect the state. If you work for the rabbinate and don’t believe in its importance, then it’s just a job.”
Orbach says, “The haredi political world lags behind the regular haredi world. Similarly, until the party primary, the political world lagged behind the changes in the religious-Zionist world. The Mafdal [the religious-Zionist party] changed its form when Naftali Bennett and a secular woman got on the list, and adapted itself to the public’s wishes.
“The haredi political world will also change according to what happens in the haredi population. Women are going out to work. On the fringes, haredi men are considering the option of joining the army. The new media has entered that world as well. Maybe one day there will be a haredi Naftalie Bennett. Who knows — maybe in another term or two the head of United Torah Judaism will be a haredi man who is part of the work force.”