Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedim and the State > Israel’s New (Black-Velvet) Kippah

Israel’s New (Black-Velvet) Kippah

In recent years, the struggle to defend the Chief Rabbinate against reformers has been spearheaded by Charedim. This indicates a crucial shift if the Charedi mindset concerning Israel, and defines new duties of responsibility and accountability.

Av 5782; August 2022

It would be the understatement of the year to say that the Bennett Government, of blessed (or not) memory, was not the darling of Charedi public opinion. To the bitter end and beyond, there was no limit to the condemnation and denunciation that Charedim, both Knesset members and regular people on the street, directed at Bennet and his “partners in crime.”

This is not, as we might surmise, due to economic sanctions against Torah students and their families. Broadly speaking, the Bennett government left designated budgets for Charedi education unaltered; some argue that all in all, the sum of funding to Charedi society actually rose.[1] Canceling daycare subsidies for families in which one spouse is not employed, a move that targeted families in which the father is a full-time Torah student, never came into effect. By the time the government folded, it had become a dead letter. Even the “decree” against disposable dishes turned out to be pretty innocuous. Instead, the crux of Charedi claims against the Bennett government related to a different realm entirely: the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.

The consensus among government ministers (excluding Ra’am) was that a series of reforms were required in matters of religion and state. The overseer of this reform agenda, religious affairs minister Matan Kahana, worked with diligence to pass several significant reforms into law. It is hardly surprising that he stood at the center of the Charedi attacks on the government. Even after its fall, Charedi Knesset members have declared the Kahana is a persona non grata for any future government they will be a party to.

At the core of the relevant reforms was Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. At the heart of the Charedi struggle against the (so-called) “malicious government” were Kashrus reforms, conversion reforms, changing the composition of the committee that chooses Israel’s Chief Rabbis, the plan for the Western Wall, and more. Over a few short months, it became clear that the Charedim had become the staunchest defendants of the Chief Rabbinate. I find this point, which may seem obvious, deeply telling of the critical processes that Charedi society is undergoing.

 

The Struggle with the Rabbinate

Readers with a keen historical sense will raise eyebrows at the state of affairs whereby Charedim (or the Charedi political apparatus) spring to the defense of the Chief Rabbinate and protect its monopoly over key areas of religion.[2] By all accounts, this attitude was not always the Charedi position regarding the Chief Rabbinate. From the outset, Charedi society set itself against Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Some struggles, such as the fierce opposition to “Heichal Shlomo” (the historical residence of the Chief Rabbinate) that even embroiled Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, later the preeminent Charedi rabbinic leader, were among the most profound that Charedi Judaism undertook in Israel’s early years.

The tale is told, cited by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, that when the Chief Rabbinate was established, a known Rosh Yeshiva went to speak with Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the Charedi leader of the generation, and found him crying. To his visitor’s astonishment, Rav Grodzinsky explained that he had heard of the founding of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and “who knows what kind of destruction this will bring to the Jewish People.”[3] In a letter rallying against the Chief Rabbinate, from the 18th of Tammuz, 5704 (1944), the Brisker Rav expressed concern that the Rabbinate would be subordinate to the authority of the Zionists, alongside the concern for liberal rulings that would result:

To our great sorrow, the heads of the Zionist and Mizrachi parties have recently positioned themselves against Torah and its students and all matters of religion in Israel. […] [I]s the Chief Rabbinate not sold to the Jewish Agency, whose targets it must meet by its own volition or under coercion. […] Moreover, regarding other matters of religion, they spread their nets to create new enactments in our Torah, going further even than the Reform Rabbis of Germany and France, on account of our many sins. […] To what extent will their hands be outstretched against the Torah itself, to alter and amend it like a person who molds it in his own spirit.

Such opposition was far from a one-off occurrence. Other Charedi leaders, such as Rav Shach and the Steipler continued to voice their sharp opposition to the Chief Rabbinate and its auxiliary institutions, seeking to limit their power over religious life in Israel. In numerous correspondences, Torah luminaries repeated the reasons above time and again, for example, in the following letter dated 20th Cheshvan, 5728 (1967):

Our great luminaries of several years ago voiced their strong opposition to opening the religious center of Heichal Shlomo. They saw it as a danger of bringing Reform ideas into Jewish homes. We see it as our duty to publicize our clear opinion concerning the significant risk of participating in this conference, for any attendance will assist the realization of this defile idea of gradual reform, Heaven forbid.[4]

The letter, signed by all significant Charedi rabbinic figures, was followed by a second letter in 1971 and subsequent letters and notices. By stark contrast, today, we find Charedi rabbinic figures campaigning on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate’s central authority. If in the past, religious-Zionist figures opposed giving any status to privatized Charedi rabbinical courts (such as that of Rabbi Nissim Karelitz, zt”l), today, the Charedim themselves have become the greatest advocates on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate. What has changed?

The cynical answer to this question will refer to narrow interests rather than ideology. Today’s Chief Rabbinate is run by Charedim, from religious courts to rabbinical positions, from Kashrus and conversion divisions to assistant and secretarial functions. All these provide multiple Charedi families with a good livelihood, and the power to make Rabbinate appointments has granted political leverage to Charedi parties. Such gains, claim the cynics, are more than enough to discard with ideological positions. In turn, the wars against Kahana are not ideological but territorial: how dare he meddle with the newly-found Charedi goldmine of the Chief Rabbinate.

This answer has an element of truth, but no more than this. Although the public debate on the various issues of religion and states is often tinged with personal interest, I believe this falls far short of telling the whole story. The dramatic change in public opinion is far more profound than jobs and personal interests; it relates to an ideological shift—a welcome one, in my opinion—in the relationship between the Charedi public and the State of Israel.

 

Charedim and the Chief Rabbinate: From Foe to Friend

After filtering out the background noise of self-interested parties then and now, the core motives of Charedi society have not changed. Just as then, at the forefront of the Charedi interest lies the deep concern for the future of Judaism. Yet, if the connection between religion and state was previously considered to threaten secularization—a hostile takeover of the age-old institution of rabbinic establishment by the secular Jewish state—the relationship has now reversed. Charedi Judaism no longer sees the Chief Rabbiniate as a reformist threat to observant Judaism but rather as the (black-velvet) Kippah of the state. Instead of dismantling the Jewish nature of Israel and the traditional rabbinic institution, it preserves the State’s Jewish identity and fights for the cause of tradition against those who assail it.

Charedi Judaism no longer sees the Chief Rabbiniate as a reformist threat to observant Judaism but rather as the (black-velvet) Kippah of the state. Instead of dismantling the Jewish nature of Israel and the traditional rabbinic institution, it preserves the State’s Jewish identity and fights for the cause of tradition against those who assail it.

The outgoing government, in which a Reform rabbi served as a minister, raised grave concerns over several issues: Kashrus (not that the current situation, heavily tarnished by Charedi politics, is particularly impressive), conversion (by decentralizing the Chief Rabbinate’s authority), the arrangement at the Kotel, Jewish education in schools, and more. Generally, weakening the Chief Rabbinate was seen—rightly, I believe—as a weakening of the Jewish identity of the state, designed out of ideological opposition to the Jewish nature of Israel’s public square.

Charedi policy about the Chief Rabbinate has clearly shifted, following a new balance of power. In the first decades after Israel’s founding, Charedi society was weak and frightened, traumatized by the Holocaust and confounded by the spectacular success of political Zionism. Its focus turned inwards to the cultivation of a God-fearing community. At this nascent stage, the “nationalization” of the Chief Rabbinate presented a grave concern for the community: perhaps the state would swallow up Charedi society and transform Judaism into a small government office. Today, this troubling scenario no longer lurks around the corner. Charedi Judaism stands strong; instead of posing an existential threat, the Chief Rabbinate has become a representative of Torah Judaism to the Jewish state in acute need of good representation.

 

From Defense to Influence

The radical change that overcame Charedi Judaism’s position vis-à-vis the Chief Rabbinate indicates a broader power shift. The numerical growth of observant Jews and the accompanying change in Israel’s political map, including the transition of religious parties from opposition to coalition, have transformed Israel’s ideological map. The traditional position of the Mizrachi movement and its political organs, which desired to paint a knitted Kippah on Zionism and the State of Israel, is slowly becoming the Charedi position. Concomitantly, Israel’s Kippah is morphing from a knitted to a black, velvet Kippah.

Charedi participation in Israel and a growing sense of responsibility for Israel’s public space continue to augment. If the Religious-Zionist parties toppled past governments over airplanes that flew on Shabbos, today Shas and UTJ will do the same over transportation of equipment by Israel’s electricity company (the famous Superheater episode[5]) or even some ill-advised announcement of a government spokesperson. For several decades, its isolationist policy limited Charedi battlegrounds to internal matters alone, yet this situation is changing. The struggle with the outgoing government was (primarily) not about preserving Charedi Judaism but about the heart of Israel’s Judaism. As MK Gafni articulated time and again, the concern was for the non-observant “traditional Jew” who needs a strongly Jewish Israel to ensure his connection and commitment to tradition.

Unfortunately, there is far too much political meddling in matters of the Chief Rabbinate, including a range of factional and financial interests that play leading roles in appointments, Kashrus issues, and general policy matters

Absent a state-sponsored Chief Rabbinate, Judaism in Israel will resemble the situation in the Diaspora, where privatized rabbinic authority is up for grabs. For Israel, this is liable to harm the Jewish nature of the Israeli public square, weaken the Jewish character of Israel, and, predominantly, alienate the non-observant-but-somewhat-traditional Jew whose Jewish identity derives (more than anything else) from the State of Israel. Privatizing religious authority will lead to the secularization of the state, severing the halachic ties that ensure the Jewish continuity of future generations and undermining Israel as a Jewish state.

This point is not lost on Charedi society, and its deep involvement and commitment to the Chief Rabbinate indicate the shift of Charedim toward the State of Israel on many levels. At the same time, Charedim must ensure that the concern voiced by the Brisker Rav over political involvement in the Chief Rabbinate should not be realized under their watch. Unfortunately, there is far too much political meddling in matters of the Chief Rabbinate, including a range of factional and financial interests that play leading roles in appointments, Kashrus issues, and general policy matters. The Chief Rabbinate cannot become a playing field for Charedi wheelers-and-dealers while enjoying continued validation of religious Zionist groups for which it contains inherent sanctity.

Charedi society has grown. With growth comes power, and with power comes responsibility and even accountability. We are called to step up to the plate.

 


[1] See https://www.ynet.co.il/economy/article/sk92skiif (Hebrew).

[2] It is noteworthy that even “Chardal” factions—the right wing of the religious Zionist community—have adopted Charedi rabbinic leaders as defenders of the Chief Rabbinate. See https://judaism.walla.co.il/item/3453814.

[3] Cited in HaRav Mi-Brisk, Vol. 4, p. 274, footnote 4 (Hebrew).

[4] Keraina de’Igresa no. 787.

[5] See https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3323520,00.html.

Photo by Moshe Pridan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Israel’s New (Black-Velvet) Kippah

  • This article is grossly misleading. Haredim have always wanted to – and to a large measure did – control the Chief Rabbinate. The puppets who occupy the seats of Chief Rabbi are selected through a process of mock democracy, but actually controlled by the mailed fist of haredi interests deep in the territory north of Rehov Yafo. They do not dare to make a move without getting approval from the rabbinic dons is the haredi cosa nostra. Yet, like the corrupt kashruth supervision which is staffed almost exclusively by and through haredi nepotism and connections, actual haredim have only disdain for the institution of the Rabbanut Harashit, and view it merely as a basket of job and business opportunities for those among them who are creative and clever and connected enough to get close to the trough. Hence the loathing of Matan Kahana has nothing to do with any perceived lenience and everything to do with the possible loss of thousands of haredi sinecures feasting off the taxpayer by way of a rabbinate reviled by haredim and hilonim alike. Kahana is everything that terrifies haredim most — a brilliant, heroic, learned and uncompromisingly ‘ehrlich’ (as opposed to frum) former fighter pilot who was known to bring sandwiches from home to his airforce base because his personal standards of kashruth were so stringent. His honesty and integrity led him to his efforts to dislodge the ingrown gangsterism and corruption of rabbinic business as usual and to restore the concept of ‘asreh lekha rav’, a notion that is totally lost on black hat rabbonim and their fiefdoms. Because there are indeed honest and learned rabbis in Israel, rabbis who can relate to the people. But with few exceptions they do not wear black hats, have served in the IDF, and earn their keep honestly.

    • Goodness, you seem to have rather a large ax to grind. With respect, it looks like your Haredi animosity doesn’t allow you to address the issues raised in the article in a more considered manner.

  • Shame that the Sefardi position was not mentioned in this article, and especially the special contribution of Rav Ovadya Yosef zt”l. He also felt a responsibility toward the entirety of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and this led him to strengthen the Rabbanut to ensure that even those who are distant from Torah and Mitzvot will maintain the connection. The Ashkenazi establishment is slowly catching on.

    • I don’t agree with the harsh language of JJ Gross.
      However I agree that there have been serious shortcomings with the “system”.
      Lack of proper supervision of mashgichim.
      Unfriendly marriage officials which cause many non charedim to opt for the Zohar marriage option.
      If indeed the Rabbanut is becoming more velvet kippot hoe many would eat mehadrin rabbanut yerushalaim.

  • The Charedi opposition to the Rabbanut was mainly its establishment – a little like the State of Israel generally. But once established, of course it became legitimate and even a mitzvah to try to make it better and more conservative rather than charting a liberal course. Rav Elyashiv, even while the Brisker Rav lived, was a part of the Rabbanut.

  • The appointment of Yona Metzger as Chief Rabbi was tremendously damaging to the Rabbanut, and remains a real stain on the Charedi establishment for promoting a self-interest (the Heter Mechira issue) at the expense of the entire institution of the Rabbanut. Shame, and unfortunately still quite representative. The Rabbanut is legit so long as it serves the Charedi cause.

  • The article brings new levels of meaning to “Ikkar ḥoser min ha-sefer.” Because RCOG ztl was quoted, among other items, I will bring some additional verifiable history concerning his written views on related issues.

    Going back to the 30’s, RTPF ztl complained to RCOG about a separate leader by the Eidah, implicitly weakening his authority. RCOG suggested that he must be the rabbi of all Jews in Jerusalem; thus, it is not advisable for him to oppose a separate rabbinic infrastructure by the Eidah.

    For over 50 years Chief Rabbis were mainly Religious Zionists following in the footsteps of Rav Kook and Rav Herzog both zikhronom l’verakha. Then Ḥareidim heled engineer the election of a CR more attuned to their hashkafot, despite his checkered history. Of course, his subsequent behavior and history are well known.

    And then in one action, thousands of conversions were overturned by R. A. Sherman. Geirut is a disputed area, but the more lenient views of R.S. Kluger ztl and RCOG cannot be ignored. And for those who might try to spin RCOG’s pesak, one need only read he pesakim of RMF ztl written before and after RMF read that pesak. (IMHO, the change is unprecedented in IM.) Most Jews celebrated the miraculous exodus of Jews, halakhic or otherwise, from Russia. The need for leniency given those events can only be denied by one with no sense of the miraculous existence of Medinat Yisroel, something we hope is the beginning of the process of redemption.

    The latter two events, among many others, increased the sense that Haredim have only their and not the State’s best interest at heart.

    More than ever the importance of the State and the benefits both the State and the Russian olim have received deserves different, more balanced halakhic response. More than ever, we need a CR dedicated to the concerns of the State and all its inhabitants.

    Haredim have yet to exhibit concerns outside their arba amot.

  • Excellent argument.

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