Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recites morning prayers at his hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Avi Ohayon/GPO: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recites morning prayers at his hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021.
Inside story

Holy and mundane: Why Israel’s 1st Orthodox premier still rankles many religious

The PM keeps kosher, Shabbat and more, and not only for show; but to some, his unholy coalition outweighs any pride in seeing a kippah-clad leader in the halls of power

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Avi Ohayon/GPO: Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recites morning prayers at his hotel in Washington on August 25, 2021.

On Tuesday, September 28, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett marched briskly down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, palisaded by aides, Israeli security guards and a phalanx of New York City cops who cleared intersections and kept gawkers and pretzel vendors out of the way.

As a group of five Israeli journalists tried to keep up on the opposite side of the busy street — “Sidewalk, sidewalk, do not step off the sidewalk,” New York’s finest yelled at us when Bennett made a move in our direction to offer greetings — the curious parade made its way alongside Central Park from 85th Street, the Upper East Side home of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, to Bennett’s hotel on 59th Street, just around the corner from Turtle Bay.

With the United Nations General Assembly holding its annual meeting of top-level dignitaries, there was no shortage of prime ministers, presidents, queens and kings in New York City that week. But among them, Bennett was unique: Any other foreign leader would have opted for a car or a convoy, rather than a constitutional, to make the 1.6-mile journey.

The day, however, was the closing chapter of the holiday of Sukkot, when religious Jews generally refrain from using motorized transportation.

In Israel’s 73-year history, Bennett is the closest the country has come to having a religious prime minister. He is publicly observant of Shabbat and kashrut, and wears upon his head a small knit kippah, a cultural and religious signifier identifying him as a member of the national-religious, or Modern Orthodox, tribe.

Yet many members of the Orthodox community are vehemently opposed to him. While some chafe at his decisions regarding how to observe Jewish law, or halacha, others feel let down by the fact that Israel’s first religious premier is not only not in the thrall of rabbinical sages, but has allied with those actively attempting to force unwanted changes on their communities, from leftists to anti-Haredi secularists.

Bennett is far from the first Israeli prime minister to openly adhere to the Orthodox proscriptions for Shabbat and holidays. Traditionally, Israeli premiers and presidents have been careful to not break any rules regarding use of motors or electronics on Shabbat at least in public, both in Israel but especially abroad, where they view themselves as emissaries of the Jewish state and torchbearers of Jewish tradition.

In 1976, Yitzhak Rabin’s government collapsed after ultra-Orthodox members rebelled over the fact that a ceremony for new jet fighters had finished as Shabbat began on Friday evening, meaning some attendees had driven home when it was already the Day of Rest.

While such pearl-clutching is far less prevalent nowadays, Bennett’s predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu became the subject of Page 6-style gossip in the Haredi press — and sometimes beyond — any time he was spotted eating nonkosher food or breaking Shabbat.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Hanukkah ceremony at the Western Wall on December 20, 2014. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Unlike Rabin, Netanyahu and every other previous Israeli premier, Bennett’s public religious observance is not a show, but part of a personal creed. And in a bizarre twist, he wound up sparking a mini-snafu anyway on his New York trip when he decided to fly back to Israel the day after Sukkot.

While September 29 was no longer a holiday for Israeli Jews, those in the Diaspora — for complicated and fairly arcane reasons — always observe the next day as a holiday as well, in this case making the second of those two days the holiday of Simchat Torah. Leaving for home that day thus created the appearance of Bennett having shunned the holiday observed by his hosts.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks to reporters in New York before boarding a plane back to Israel, September 29, 2021. (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“It is embarrassing that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, with a kippah on his head, does not respect Shabbat and Jewish holidays,” Shas MK Moshe Abutbul chided in a statement at the time. “He could have respected Simchat Torah and taken into consideration the timing in New York, without causing Jews to desecrate the Sabbath.”

While some Jews traveling overseas have the custom of observing the traditions of the place they find themselves in, many others carry their traditions with them. Hence, Americans visiting Israel for a holiday may continue observing it for another day, after the rest of the country has moved on, and religious Israelis visiting the US may go to the movies while their compatriots spend their time in synagogue without a smartphone.

It’s common for Orthodox travelers to seek rabbinical guidance in such situations and the prime minister had indeed spoken to friend and spiritual mentor Rabbi Stewart Weiss, an American expat who lives in Bennett’s hometown of Ra’anana. According to reports in the national-religious press, Weiss gave him the okay to not observe the second day of the holiday and fly back to Israel that day.

People at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on September 29, 2021. A regular day in Israel, but a Jewish holiday in New York. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But Uzi Baruch, the editor of Israel National News, a religious nationalist news website also known as Arutz Sheva, noted that Bennett’s decision to fly while the US was still observing the holiday may not be kosher.

“As soon as he became prime minister, a result of his trip to the airport is that there are Jews who are desecrating [the holiday],” he said. “It clearly caused Jews in New York to break their holiday observance in order to take the prime minister to the airport.”

Several weeks earlier, Bennett also caught flak for breaking Shabbat to travel to a police command center following the escape of six Palestinian security inmates from Gilboa Prison. Bennett waited until the conclusion of Shabbat to remark on the incident, but some asked whether his presence at the command center rose to the level of emergency that justified him shunting aside Shabbat prohibitions.

The Torah lists 39 types of “work” from which Jews should refrain between sundown Friday and nightfall Saturday — everything from collecting sticks to separating chaff — which the rabbis have expanded, shifted and renegotiated repeatedly over the centuries. Yet the Borges-esque library of Jewish rabbinical thought on what is and isn’t allowed agrees on one major tenet: All of those religious prescriptions and proscriptions regarding Shabbat, kashrut or nearly anything else may be discarded if doing so will save a human life.

An ambulance on an empty street in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, on September 16, 2021. (Flash90)

The exemption is the reason ultra-Orthodox soldiers can patrol in jeeps on Yom Kippur, why doctors carry phones into synagogue on Shabbat and why a religious family may keep a radio or TV on to better hear rocket sirens during times of heightened tensions. But does it also cover a prime minister traveling to a command center during a police and army search for potentially dangerous fugitives following a serious security breach?

“I’m trying to figure out what security need there was for the prime minister to show up for a photo op on the holy Shabbat eve,” Yishai Cohen, a journalist for ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabat, tweeted shortly after. “And what’s more, this is first kippah-wearing prime minister in the country’s history.”

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a leading scholar on Jewish thought and a founder of religious Zionism’s flagship Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank, called the criticism around Bennett’s ostensible Shabbat desecration “foolishness, nonsense.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev meet with police commanders about the efforts to track down six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from prison in northern Israel, Saturday, September 11, 2021. (Israel Police)

“I trust Bennett that he knows enough to make his own decisions,” Bin-Nun told The Times of Israel. “And if he has a doubt, he also has someone to ask. So far I have not seen any flaw from a halachic point of view and all the attacks on him are nonsense.”

“I was thrilled to see him, a kippah on his head, entering the White House… Every religious mother would want such a groom for her daughter: a high-tech executive, an IDF officer who served in [elite commando unit] Sayeret Matkal, and who speaks excellent English”

Even with all the Haredi opprobrium over Bennett’s level of public observance, INN’s Baruch called seeing a kippah-wearing prime minister in the Oval Office with the leader of the free world an “uplifting moment.”

“I was thrilled to see him, a kippah on his head, entering the White House,” he said. “I am sure it sets a great example for young families who see it. Every religious mother would want such a groom for her daughter: a high-tech executive, an IDF officer who served in [elite commando unit] Sayeret Matkal, and who speaks excellent English.”

Unholy alliance

Bennett’s life has always involved something of a balance between religiosity and secularism. Some armchair analysts have even pointed to the relatively small size of Bennett’s kippah — imagine a crocheted coaster — as an outward signal of his less than full-throttled embrace of Orthodoxy.

The son of immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett was already in school by the time his parents began embracing a religious lifestyle, according to some reported accounts, and he only began wearing a kippa on a regular basis after the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with his wife Gilat in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Ariel Zandberg/Yamina)

His wife Gilat Bennett does not come from a religious background (Netanyahu reportedly tried to push stories into the media at one point smearing her for working at a nonkosher restaurant), but she keeps Shabbat and the Bennetts’ four children attend state-run religious schools.

Some have noticed that he has stopped attending his regular synagogue

Bennett is a former leader of the West Bank settlement movement, where knit-kippah modern Orthodoxy is a dominant force. But he’s also from a tech world that is often more in tune with progressive values. He himself lives not in a settlement but in Ra’anana, a well-off bedroom community north of Tel Aviv that has both a thriving Modern Orthodox community and many secular residents.

Naftali Bennett, in 2014, gives a speech holding his kippa to his head. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Since becoming prime minister, as head of a coalition made up of everyone from fellow right-wingers in New Right to anti-Haredi Yisrael Beytenu to hard-left Meretz and Islamist Ra’am, Bennett appeared to some to have dropped some aspects of his religious life.

Rabbi Stuart Weiss (Courtesy)

Some have noticed that he has stopped attending his regular synagogue, Rabbi Weiss’s Ohel Ari, named for Weiss’s son who was killed in a military operation in Nablus in 2002, even though the synagogue is only some 200 meters (650 feet) away from his home. (Despite having use of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, Bennett has remained in Ra’anana so his children can continue to attend their schools.)

Since he assumed the premiership, he has only attended synagogue in Ra’anana three times: Tisha B’av, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and not at his regular house of worship, but at special open-air services held at a local university. He also attended synagogue with his mother Myrna when he visited her in Haifa for Shabbat. (His father Jim died six years ago.)

According to a source in the Prime Minister’s Office, Bennett’s decision to avoid his regular synagogue stems not from a shift in his religiosity, but from religious sensitivities for others. Because security guards would need to collect the names of everyone attending and implement various other potentially disruptive measures, he has decided to stay away and let his former co-parishioners pray in peace.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, January 16, 2013. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, January 16, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

For many religious Jewish Israelis, Bennett’s personal level of observance, or lack thereof, is a non-issue.

Sari Rot, publisher of ultra-Orthodox news website Haredim10, noted that the ultra-Orthodox have never wanted to see one of their own become prime minister and don’t actually care what the country’s leaders do in private.

“They don’t pry into his private life and what [Torah] commandments he keeps,” she said.

Both Baruch and Bin-Nun noted that there is no litmus test for determining if someone is religious, with “observance” only a rough catch-all for Jewish Orthodoxy’s infinitely variegated shades.

“No one keeps all 613 commandments,” Bin-Nun said. “There is no 100 percent of obedience. If a person observes halacha as he understands it, why should we get mad and pine for a secular prime minister?”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett with his son before his first day of school on September 1, 2016. (Education Ministry)

But to many religious Israeli Jews, Bennett’s outwardly religious appearance creates a vulgar dissonance when coupled with the political coalition that has put him in power. While the ultra-Orthodox political parties have historically been free agents, willing to partner with right-wing or left-wing or whoever butters their bread, they have lately tied their wagon more closely with Netanyahu, pledging to back him as part of an ad hoc alliance.

Yoel Bin-Nun (Frederic Brenner)

Bin-Nun surmised that Haredi anger toward Bennett actually stems from their partnership with Netanyahu, who as opposition leader has continued to attack the Yamina party head unrelentingly.

“It’s the community that supports Netanyahu and therefore, no matter what [Bennett] does, they come out against him, instead of rejoicing over the fact that he changed the country’s COVID-19 policy, allowing Israel to attend synagogue during the High Holidays without any lockdowns,” said Bin-Nun.

Until he became prime minister, Bennett had generally worked well with Haredi politicians, and until recently was viewed by many analysts as a natural partner for them. One of the ultra-Orthodox parties’ few beefs with him revolved around his support for the Western Wall compromise deal that would expand non-Orthodox access to the holy site, which dovetailed with his attempts to position himself as representing Jews of all religious shades.

Outgoing Economy Minister Naftali Bennett with successor Aryeh Deri at swearing his ceremony, May 17, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Bennett’s choice of coalition partners instead of the ultra-Orthodox has made him that much less palatable to some in the community.

“Bennett himself is not the question here, but the government he established,” said Rot.

“An illegitimate prime minister with six seats, who is barely scratching the electoral threshold in all the polls and represents only himself, wants to limit the influence of Haredim who represent a million people”

For starters, Bennett is allied with Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu, two parties that have turned rolling back Haredi hegemony over state institutions and other ultra-Orthodox special interests into central planks of their platforms.

Recently Bennett himself told a conference that “we need to limit [the ultra-Orthodox’s] political sway.” The comment drew swift and angry denunciations from Haredi political leaders.

“An illegitimate prime minister with six seats, who is barely scratching the electoral threshold in all the polls and represents only himself, wants to limit the influence of Haredim who represent a million people,” Shas leader Aryeh Deri tweeted in response, referring to the small showing at the polls for Bennett’s Yamina party.

On top of that, Bennett’s own national religious base has always veered sharply to the right of the political spectrum, making his partnerships with Meretz and Ra’am hard to swallow.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 1, 2021. (Emil Salman/Flash90)

Baruch, of Israel National News, noted that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, whose turn-of-the-20th-century teachings are considered foundational to religious Zionism, forbade the creation of an Israeli government held together by the support of an Arab party.

The prohibition held for 73 years until June, when Ra’am joined Bennett’s coalition. Because the government hangs on the razor-thin margin of a single vote, any party, including Ra’am, has the power to fell it, putting Bennett in direct violation of Kook’s ruling.

A Tzohar poster calling for change in the rabbinate, with the face of early Zionist rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzohar)
A Tzohar poster, seen in 2012, calling for change in the rabbinate, with the face of early Zionist rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Courtesy of Tzohar)

“It’s okay that they are part of the coalition, but the problem is that they are the 61st vote,” Baruch said.

He theorized that even some would-be supporters oppose Bennett’s government because they fear what will happen if it survives two years and Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, becomes premier in accordance with the agreed-upon rotation deal.

“There are many who do not support Bennett even though they are religious and consider him the first religious prime minister,” he said.

“Those who support the… government are proud of his kippah and the fact that there is a religious prime minister for the first time. But others say this government is a disaster because he brought Meretz into power and therefore he should be treated as non-religious,” he explained.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) as he meets with US President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House, on Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (GPO)

Some from the Orthodox camp, indeed, feel as if they have simply been sold out: Israel finally elects a religious prime minister, but rather than usher in a messianic golden age, he has allied himself with anti-Haredi elements and non-Jews and himself backs curbing ultra-Orthodox power.

“When Bennett was education minister, he showed tremendous respect for the ultra-Orthodox,” said Haredim10’s Rot. “Now as prime minister, he shows no affinity toward the Haredi minority. So it’s impossible to take pride in the fact that Israel has its first religious, kippah-wearing prime minister.”

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