Going in two directions at once: The struggle for the soul of religious Zionism

Six years ago, I led a demonstration against the segregation of women on public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
August 3, 2016

Six years ago, I led a demonstration against the segregation of women on public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. I stood there, wearing a long skirt and with my head covered with a bright red hat, an Orthodox religious woman demonstrating against the Orthodox religious establishment.

I’m not unique. If you look at all the recent battles over religion and state — access to mikvaot (ritual baths) for all denominations, the struggle over Shabbat commerce laws, and the fight against the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut certification — in all of these struggles against the orthodox religious establishment, it’s Orthodox religious women and men who are leading them.

What does this mean? What’s going on in the Israeli Orthodox religious community?

This is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, battles over religion and state in Israel were largely between the secular and the religious. One side wanted to prevent the state from funding or legally enforcing anything religious, and wanted public space to be neutral, with a minimum of religious symbols. On the other side were those who wanted a religious-cultural uniqueness that would make Israel a “Jewish state” rather than “a state of all its citizens.” The secular side spoke the language of the liberal West, and the religious spoke the language of religion and halachah. Things were relatively simple back then: We all knew which side we were on.

Today, things are different. Much of the argument now takes place within the Orthodox community. It’s an internal argument about the meaning of a Jewish state and perhaps about the meaning of Judaism in general.

There are two foci of this argument: one about modernity and one about Zionism.

With regard to modernity, the Orthodox community is asking the questions that Jews have asked since the Enlightenment, and that, in one way or another, all Jews still ask today. What is the relationship between modernity and tradition? How do we grapple with the rapid changes taking place in the world and the challenges posed by those changes to traditional values? Should we respond to change with withdrawal and fear, or with openness and adaptability? Should we emphasize the humanist values of Jewish tradition — equality, freedom and individual autonomy — or the values that are in tension with Western liberalism: collectivism, obedience and gender essentialism? How should we relate to changes in the place of women in family structure and in the workplace? Do we need to adjust the Torah to reality or reality to the Torah?

The battlefields of this debate are the place of women in society, and questions about changing the traditional structures of the synagogue, halachic leadership and public life, in order to make room for them. Another battleground is linked to treatment of the LGBT community. Another relates to the role of secular education.

The other focus of the split within Israeli orthodoxy is over Zionism. Here the argument is about the meaning of a Jewish secular state. Is it an earthquake that requires radical halachic change, or merely a new situation that is devoid of religious or halachic significance?

Here the arguments are about the attitude toward non-observant Jews (do we have a mutual responsibility to anyone who is part of the Jewish people, and to what extent does this responsibility demand tolerance or pluralism on our part?). We also argue about the relationship between the adjectives “Jewish” and “democratic” in Israel’s definition. What happens to halachah when the “Jewish state” does not see it as authoritative? Or, conversely, when the “democratic state” enforces halachah on those who do not accept it? And what happens to Jewish culture when it becomes the culture of the majority, not the minority?

The battlefields of the Zionism debate include conversion, the relationship with Israel’s Arab minority, public space on Shabbat, our attitude toward secular Jews, the refusal to obey an order in the military when the order contradicts halachah, and more. There is a deep connection between these two foci — Zionism and modernity — but they don’t always overlap cleanly. Someone can be very conservative when it comes to the place of women, but radical in the way he perceives the meaning and implications of the State of Israel. Or someone can be very open toward the LGBT community, but very strict about public space on Shabbat.

So who’s winning? “Whither religious Zionism?” It’s hard to say, because it’s going in two directions at once. It’s getting both more extreme and more open than ever before. Religious feminism is growing, but so is the phenomenon of excluding women from public space, which never existed before. Private conversion courts are being founded by Orthodox rabbis as an alternative to the Chief Rabbinate, but at the same time, more and more religious Zionist families are sending their children to schools that do not teach secular studies. Attitudes toward LGBT Israelis are becoming more open, while attitudes toward Arab Israelis become more suspicious and alienating. We’re going in opposite directions at the same time, all the time.

My description of this cultural struggle is obviously not neutral. It’s my struggle and I care about its outcome, both as a religious Zionist and as an Israeli citizen. Religious Zionists are raised to believe in the importance of contributing to society; perhaps it’s no coincidence that you’ll find religious Zionists in many of the key roles in the public sector: the head of the Shin Bet, the attorney general, the head of the Mossad, and the police commissioner. And so the question of where this community will go is critical to Israel’s future. Isolation or integration? Religious extremism or finding a balance between traditional values ​​and modern values? Fundamentalism and fanaticism or democracy?

My own position is that we can and must build a humanistic, Zionist, democratic, socially involved Judaism. I also believe that we, the religious Zionists who believe in these values, must build alliances and collaborations with all those who believe in these values, even if we don’t agree 100 percent. We need an alliance with secular Zionists, with the modern ultra-Orthodox, and with Israeli Arabs who are willing to live in a Jewish state. The Shaharit Institute is one of the few places in Israeli society that enables me to make such alliances, and I believe it’s no exaggeration to say that the future of the State of Israel depends on our success.

This is the second in a series of essays by writers who are leaders and activists in the Shaharit Institute (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together people to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and a politics of the common good

Tehila Friedman-Nachalon is the director of Kolot’s Center for Jewish Leadership and a fellow at the Shaharit Institute. She was a fellow in the Mandel Leadership Institute, former chair of Ne’emanei Torah ve’Avodah, a modern Orthodox movement promoting pluralism and democracy, and board member of the Yerushalmit Movement, a nonprofit for a pluralistic Jerusalem. She lives in Jerusalem and is the mother of five children.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.