Shas party leader and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri lashed out recently at “liberal” streams of Israeli Orthodox Judaism, calling them “borderline Reform.”
Deri spoke at a conference earlier this month of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic organization Benoam.
“Anyone who knows how synagogues are run over there [in the modern Orthodox community], or the conduct of the prayers, I don’t want to say too much, but these are very significant changes,” Deri charged, clarifying he was referring to “knit kippa” wearers, a Hebrew term for adherents of modern Orthodoxy, as distinct from the black skullcaps favored by the ultra-Orthodox community.
“Even the ‘knit kippot’ today, as some know even in very large communities, mainly in the center of the country, they’re already borderline Reform,” he said in the footage obtained by Channel 2 news.
“It’s true, there are more kippot” in these communities than in American Reform synagogues, Deri went on. “It looks different, it’s more Israeli. But it’s still borderline Reform,” he repeated.
Deri’s directed his comments at rabbis who belong to the Tzohar organization, most of them state-appointed city and council rabbis who nevertheless have sought to create a more welcoming and open state rabbinate.
The Tzohar rabbis, he noted, were at the forefront in the battle against the Shas-backed conversion law that seeks to further restrict access to state-recognized conversions in Israel to rabbinate-approved rabbinic courts.
“Together and in collaboration with the Reform, because they know their intention is to destroy [the rabbinate], they benefited from the baseness of others who were slandering the rabbinate and searching for faults in it,” he told the rabbinic group.
He went on to criticize Tzohar’s policy of refusing pay for weddings, one of several measures the rabbis of the group have undertaken to be more welcoming to non-observant Israeli couples.
“They [do] everything for free, welcoming, lenient and all that, but we all know the truth,” he said.
The Tzohar organization refused to respond to Deri’s comments, telling Channel 2 that “the things that were said, and the person who said them, are not worthy of a response.”
But the news channel cited one official close to the group railing against Deri. “This convicted criminal who is even now suspected of criminal acts is the last person who can preach morals to a large organization of rabbis who are trying to clean the filth left behind by Deri and his friends,” the official said.
Deri offered a laconic response to Channel 2, but posted a longer one on Facebook on Monday evening.
Explaining that he was referring in his talk to “certain communities who call themselves ‘liberal,'” he said his purpose was to warn of the “looming threat to our identities as Jews.”
He added: “I said that those communities that present themselves as religious are turning in liberal directions that in many cases clash headlong into Jewish law and our tradition. I spoke out of a deep concern for the preservation of the Jewish tradition. The early glimmers of Reformism that are appearing in these communities could bring us in a few decades to full Reformism and [cause] serious harm to the Jewish tradition.
“My words were said in pain, and they aren’t new. They are shared by the most senior rabbis of religious Zionism, who spoke out even more harshly and themselves expressed deep concern for the future of the Jewish people,” he insisted.
He concluded: “I have nothing against religious Zionism. We all have a shared goal: to connect Jews to each other, and not to divide…. We will continue to concern ourselves with the spiritual future of our brothers and to love them, even as we express our fear of what may come, and stubbornly insist on restoring the hearts of our lost, beloved brothers to our Father in Heaven.”