Netanyahu: He considered unity 'our strongest secret weapon'

‘One of the great rabbis of Israel’: Religious Zionist Rabbi Chaim Druckman mourned

Thousands of people brave rainy weather to attend funeral of influential spiritual leader of the national religious community, who died Sunday at 90

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Former and current students attend the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Druckman in Merkaz Shapira in central Israel  on December 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Former and current students attend the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Druckman in Merkaz Shapira in central Israel on December 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them Orthodox men, traveled to a small community outside Ashkelon on Monday to pay final respects to Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the spiritual leader of the religious Zionist movement, who died the day before.

Druckman was eulogized by the country’s top political and religious leaders, as well as by his immediate family, in a mass funeral beset by chilly, rainy weather. Earlier, Druckman’s body lay in state in his Or Etzion Yeshiva in his hometown of Merkaz Shapira, where his students and family members wept over him.

“We’ve lost… one of the great rabbis of Israel, a student of [the first-century sage] Rabbi Akiva in our generation,” said President Isaac Herzog. “All of us were your sons, all of us were your students.”

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to Druckman as a dedicated teacher and as an “exceptionally gentle” person who was nevertheless willing “to go out and fight for issues at the heart of the nation: the integrity of the land, national values, Jewish identity education, rooting out terrorism, and strengthening the Israel Defense Forces.”

Netanyahu said Druckman believed in the importance of national unity, seeing it as “our strongest secret weapon.”

“Of course, we can’t agree on everything in Israel, but like him I believe that we can reach agreement on many things that are fundamental to our existence,” he said, an apparent reference to the fierce national discourse over controversial moves proposed by members of his incoming coalition.

President Isaac Herzog speaks at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Druckman in Merkaz Shapira in central Israel on December 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu included in his list of issues dear to Druckman’s heart the highly contentious issue of conversion to Judaism, which the late rabbi worked for years to liberalize as head of the State Conversion Authority. This infuriated ultra-Orthodox rabbis and led rabbinic courts to nullify the thousands of conversions he had overseen, though that move was later reversed by the High Court of Justice.

“When he completed his tenure as head of the State Conversion Authority, I told him, ‘You stood as a genius among all of the criticism about state conversions in order to bring back those sons and daughters,'” Netanyahu said.

Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, remembered Druckman, one of his spiritual leaders, as a unifying force in the national religious community and questioned who will fill that role now.

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Druckman in Merkaz Shapira in central Israel on December 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What will I do without you? Without the smile, without the hug, without the warm handshake?” he asked. “What will we do without your dedication, without your responsibility, without you to bear the burden?”

“Pray for us, Rabbi. Pray for the people of Israel, for the land of Israel, for the State of Israel, for the government of Israel, for our dear community, which you knew how to unify,” Smotrich said.

The outspoken, provocative parliamentarian recalled “how many times [Druckman] reproached me in the past year and a half,” for his remarks.

Tens of thousands of people attend the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Druckman in Merkaz Shapira in central Israel on December 26, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Top religious leaders, including Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Moshe Amar also delivered eulogies at the ceremony, along with the head of the Bnei Akiva youth group, which Druckman was deeply involved with throughout his life, as well as Druckman’s daughter, Rabbanit Bruria Binnenfeld.

“We were privileged to have a father who was a giant, a giant of Torah, a giant of grace, a giant of dedication,” Binnenfeld said.

“You were a man of grace. Endless grace,” she said tearfully, her voice catching. “You returned every call and treated everyone with the same patience and gravitas, if it were a little girl, a student or a prime minister.”

Rabbanit Bruria Binnenfeld speaks at the funeral of her father Rabbi Chaim Druckman in the town of Merkaz Shapira in central Israel on December 26, 2022. (Screen capture)

Hundreds of police officers and volunteers were deployed to secure the event. The funeral procession was scheduled to depart from Merkaz Shapira to the nearby Masuot Yitzhak cemetery after the speeches. The public was asked not to follow the procession, but to remain in Merkaz Shapira, where they would be able to watch the burial on specially provided screens, to prevent congestion.

Druckman, a protégé of the influential nationalist Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, was credited with coining the name Gush Emunim — literally, the Believers’ Bloc — for the nascent settler movement, which was founded in Druckman’s Merkaz Shapira living room in 1974. The movement eventually shifted the religious Zionism political mainstream from the center-left position it had maintained at the founding of the state to the right, and then to the far right, where it stands today.

Rabbi Chaim Druckman during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Druckman was a major power broker in Israeli politics for decades, as a Knesset member, a deputy minister and more recently as the spiritual leader of religious Zionist parties. He also held influential religious posts, serving as dean of the Or Etzion Yeshiva, as head of the network of all seminaries affiliated with the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva movement, and as president of the union of hesder yeshivas, seminaries for men who combine military service with religious study.

Over the years, Druckman faced criticism from state authorities for his at-times subversive stances, particularly his calls for religious soldiers to refuse orders to evict West Bank settlements. He has also been condemned for defending prominent sexual offenders.

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