Religious Zionist rabbis slam Bennett, Lapid

In harshly worded letter, hard-line yeshiva heads criticize Jewish Home and Yesh Atid leaders for campaign to draft ultra-Orthodox

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L) and Jewish Home party head Naftali Bennett at a conference in Ramat Gan, December 17, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid (L) and Jewish Home party head Naftali Bennett at a conference in Ramat Gan, December 17, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The leaders of a prestigious Zionist yeshiva in Jerusalem released a biting critique of Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid on Monday, blasting the stance the two politicians have taken in coalition talks that seem set to keep the ultra-Orthodox parties out of the emerging government.

The letter was written by the three heads of Har Hamor Yeshiva, rabbis Tzvi Tau, Amiel Sternberg and Mordechai Sternberg.

The rabbis wrote that it is forbidden to harm Torah students, and that funds previously earmarked for the yeshivas should not be cut. “Diminishing the stature of Torah,” they wrote, “undermines the state [of Israel].”

The Orthodox Bennett has come under intense criticism from the ultra-Orthodox for his party’s alliance with Lapid and his Yesh Atid party — and especially for his insistence on a universal draft law that would force Haredim to enlist in the military.

“All of the talk and proposals about limiting the study of Torah in Israel… propounded by ignorant political connivers with too much power, harms the crown of the Torah, desecrates God’s name, and, heaven forbid, denigrates the foundation of Israel,” the letter read, asserting that “the intervention of those who are vacant of Torah, who scorn it and uproot it, will not last, and one is enjoined to give one’s life in order to ensure that…. Any attempt to make [the Torah] a pawn in political games will be foiled.”

The relationship between the mainstream of religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox camps has long been fraught, with the primary point of contention revolving around the issue of Haredim serving in the IDF. The ultra-Orthodox believe that Torah study and prayer serve the country no less than military and national service.

At the same time, the two camps have been natural political partners as they both believe in the sanctity and authority of Torah.

While Tau is clearly considered a part of the religious Zionist camp, and the students at the Har Hamor yeshiva by and large do serve in the IDF, he is also very sympathetic to the idea of students devoting their lives to Torah study.

On Monday, the website Kipa published a recent religious ruling by Tau in which the rabbi stated that yeshiva students who “have taken upon themselves the responsibility of Torah study… are just like soldiers who fulfill their responsibility to the entire nation.”

In the days leading up to the January 22 general election, Tau was rumored to have urged his followers to vote for the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Although the rumors were not confirmed, Tau was attacked by Rabbi Zalman Melamed, who heads a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Beit El. Melamed said that if Tau did in fact make such a statement, it would mark a departure of the path set down by Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the late, legendary head of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva who was Tau’s teacher.

Tau, 76, and other rabbis broke away from Mercaz Harav to form Har Hamor in the late 1990s over concerns that, in establishing a teachers’ college, Mercaz was embracing academia and departing from Kook’s purist approach to Torah study. Their ideology has inspired several similar yeshivas throughout Israel and the West Bank, institutions that oppose modern Orthodoxy and sanctify the role of the state in the messianic redemption. In the 2009 elections, Tau supported the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Two other rabbis from the nationalist camp, Rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu and Elyakim Levanon, on Monday urged Bennett to renounce his pact with Lapid and “open immediate negotiations with the religious parties.”

Eliyahu and Levanon are both associated with the hard-right Tekumah party, which merged with Jewish Home before the recent elections. Other Tekumah rabbis, however — Dov Lior, Haim Steiner, and David Hai Hacohen — have voiced their support for Bennett’s management of coalition negotiations and the party’s pact with Yesh Atid.

Yesh Atid won 19 Knesset seats in January’s election, second only to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s joint Likud-Beytenu list, which won 31. Jewish Home garnered 12 seats.

Both parties are expected to sign an agreement with Netanyahu in the coming days to establish a new government.

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