Facing religious reforms, some Haredim now call for synagogue-state separation

The new government, Haredi politicians warn, is ‘destroying’ and ‘corrupting’ Israel’s Jewish character. Separation, some say, may be inevitable

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Representatives of the chief rabbinate deliver a kashrut certificate to a local restaurant in central Jerusalem, on December 31, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Representatives of the chief rabbinate deliver a kashrut certificate to a local restaurant in central Jerusalem, on December 31, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

For two long months, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism have engaged in an intense campaign of vilification against the new government. There’s scarcely an epithet in the Haredi lexicon that hasn’t been leveled at Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana and others.

Much of the vituperation has been directed at the government’s proposals for reforming the large state religious bureaucracies, especially in kashrut and conversions, but it hasn’t stopped there, with UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni this week calling Bennett a “murderer” of Israelis who have recently died of the coronavirus.

On June 8, at an “emergency” press conference of the ultra-Orthodox factions, Gafni uttered the old Jewish curse, “the names of the wicked shall rot.” He was referring to Bennett and Lapid.

This week, Gafni also called Kahana “Antiochus” from the Knesset podium, referring to the villain of the Hanukkah story who banned Jewish religious practice, desecrated the Temple and ultimately ignited the Maccabean revolt.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri warned back in June that “a government headed by Bennett will destroy the Sabbath, conversion, the Chief Rabbinate, kashrut and will tear the people of Israel asunder.” Earlier this month, he said Kahana’s kashrut reforms were intended “to sow destruction and corruption.”

“You piece of nothing,” “destroyers of Israel,” “take off your kippa” — the invective has come fast and furious, at nearly every Knesset debate and every television interview with a Haredi MK.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni (L) in the Knesset plenum on July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But it isn’t just the political leadership. The Haredi factions all have councils of rabbis who are ostensibly in charge of the parties’ big-picture policy decisions. These rabbis, too, have joined in the vilification. On Tuesday, Shas MK Uriel Busso took to the podium to read out a public letter from the most prominent Sephardi Haredi rabbi in the country, 89-year-old Shalom Cohen, head of Jerusalem’s Porat Yosef Yeshiva and chairman of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages.

In archaic Hebrew typical of Haredi rabbis’ calls to penance, Cohen laid out the Shas narrative about the new reforms.

“Of late, for our great transgressions, those bad people arose and struck at the Torah of Moses, seeking to destroy the fortress of religion in the land of Israel, and declared war on God and his Torah, and wish to demolish and destroy the foundations of religion in all sacred things, to place obstacles and bring fault to the people of Israel,” Cohen began. “They threaten changes to the conversion system, may the merciful [God] save us, and the destruction of the kashrut system as we have long maintained it.

“Therefore, I call on all municipal rabbis and all rabbinic judges wherever they may be, and the members of the Chief Rabbinate Council, to oppose unequivocally any change whatsoever to the kashrut and conversion systems. No one is to cooperate with them in any way. You must stand strong, like a fortress wall, against these strange reforms that will bring ruin and destruction to Judaism in the land of Israel.”

Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Shalom Cohen speaks during a campaign event of the Shas party in Holon on September 11, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Rallying the ranks

How seriously should we take the rhetoric? Is it merely politicking, a way for Haredi politicians to pretend not to want to be part of a government that, for the time being at least, doesn’t want them on the inside getting in the way of its religious reforms? After all, how long can the Haredi community tolerate their parties remaining out of government when so many of its institutions and so much of its way of life are dependent on state funding.

Or are Haredi politicians expressing their authentic views about the new reformers and their reforms? The rhetoric may seem over the top to outside observers — do they really believe that abandoning the state rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision in favor of a heavily regulated system of competing supervision companies amounts to the “ruin and destruction” of Judaism? — but it may nevertheless reflect real anxieties about the sweeping changes being inaugurated by the Bennett-Lapid coalition.

As is often the case in politics, it seems to be a bit of both: The constant stream of denunciations reflects both the earnest views of the Haredi street and the tactical political calculations of the parties. Polls have shown that Haredi voters are right-wing and support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister at higher rates than even Likud voters. In opposing the new government with all their might, Haredi politicians are emphatically reflecting the views of their constituents.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri at the party headquarters in Jerusalem on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Yet the moral panic they are trying to foster has a more prosaic purpose too. The institutions set to be upended in the new raft of reforms are sources of immense influence and income for the Haredi community, which supplies most of their supervisors, jurists and functionaries. In insisting that there’s a war underway for the soul of Israel, they are hoping to rally the rank and file of those institutions — municipal rabbis, religious councils, kashrut inspectors, conversion judges — to stand their ground and stymie the progress of the reforms.

But there’s a downside to all that vehemence and dire warnings about the destruction of Israel: Many Haredi leaders and public figures are starting to believe it, and to respond in unexpected ways.

On Thursday morning, a startling column appeared in Mishpacha, the most-read Haredi weekly. Penned by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Haim Cohen, a longtime Shas man, it carried the blunt headline: “Religion and state: Is it time to separate?”

Given the government’s new reforms, Cohen argued, and the resulting decline in Haredi control over religious standards, perhaps it’s time to consider dismantling the coercive state religious apparatus altogether.

A single column by a single Haredi politician isn’t the point. It is the response to it that signals a new disquiet within the community over the Haredi demand to control the country’s religious life. The column was penned by a consummate insider — Cohen is a de facto appointee of Shas leader Deri to the Jerusalem City Council — was carried prominently in popular Mishpacha, was shared widely on Haredi social media, and based its radical proposal on the views of the top Haredi spiritual leaders of the past few decades.

Illustrative: 24 new rabbinical judges are sworn in at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on October 15, 2018 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

One Twitter user, Moshe Weisberg, an editor at the popular Behadrey Haredim website whose Twitter account has over 33,000 followers, shared the entire text and called the argument “interesting.”

In other words, it wasn’t the usual run of liberalizing Haredi activists who have taken to discussing seriously the idea that religion and state should, for the first time, be separated in the State of Israel. It’s the mainstream.

‘No choice’

Cohen’s argument begins in the High Court of Justice’s rulings in the mid-2000s according to which the Israeli state must recognize Reform conversions conducted abroad for the purposes of aliya.

Haredi politicians at the time turned to the most prominent Haredi sage of the day, the nonagenarian Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.

They brought a few suggestions for Elyashiv’s consideration, including the radical idea that Haredi parties could respond by supporting a formal separation of religion and state — an attempt to rescue religious institutions from the coercive power of secular ones, as witnessed in the secular court’s decree that the religious rulings of the rabbinate would not be the state’s standard for aliya eligibility.

Portrait of Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv in December 2009. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Elyashiv’s response was telling, Cohen related: Continue to protect and work within the existing state religious bureaucracies, he counseled, while adding (in Cohen’s paraphrase), “There will come a time when there would be no choice but to take this direction.”

As the new government works to break the Haredi parties’ stranglehold on the appointment of rabbinic judges and to replace the rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision with private companies, the question has returned.

“The situation today is that we have no way to prevent the problems that arise from problematic conversions,” Cohen wrote, “nor [to prevent] those unable to marry [other Jews under Jewish religious law] from entering the system. We have no way to monitor and know who underwent a halachic conversion and who did not; who married under the laws of Moses and Israel and who did not.”

There was a steep cost for the Haredi community in maintaining coercive religious institutions, he noted.

“We’re seen as paternalistic and coercing our views on the public, even as we ourselves are uncomfortable with the existing situation. Worse, the halachic institutions are subordinate to some degree to the secular state system. Today, rabbinic courts are forced to consider [in their rulings] the possibility that their decisions will be appealed to the High Court.”

The question isn’t new, but the new government’s proposed reforms have made it impossible to ignore: “The current government has set itself a goal of destroying the chief rabbinate and demolishing all that can be demolished in the relationship between religion and state,” Cohen said.

View of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem, October 5, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The answer: separation.

“In a situation in which the two systems are separated, the state will have no say in halachic matters. Anyone interested in a conversion track recognized by halacha will have to turn to systems that the halacha-committed public recognizes. Anyone who isn’t — won’t have any quarrel with us whatsoever. The state won’t be able to cancel rabbinic court rulings, as it can today… and we won’t find ourselves accused of paternalism.”

The day of separation, Elyashiv said, was inevitable. For Cohen, it may have already arrived.

“The decision where the watershed lies precisely and when the time has come to rethink our path is in the hands of the great [sages] of Israel, but as our ability to protect the existing situation diminishes, the idea must once more be brought to their door.”

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