By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Though the two ultra-Orthodox political parties, Shas and Yahadut Hatorah, held their own or did better in the Israeli elections earlier this week, their grip on key issues in the country may be loosening, not because they’ve embraced liberalism and moderation but as a result of the character of the next Netanyahu government.
Though it’ll probably take weeks before that government is in place, it already now appears that it’ll have to include the new and surprising star on the Israeli political firmament: Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s second largest party (19 out of 120 seats), Yesh Atid. Even if, in order to fulfill his political ambitions, Lapid agrees to sit at the same cabinet table as Shas and Yahadut Hatorah, he’s bound to insist, first, on military or community service for all Orthodox men and, second, compulsory teaching of the core (secular) curriculum in all Orthodox state schools.
The other, now lesser than anticipated star, Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi, who is also likely to be part of the cabinet, seems to agree. Though eleven of the twelve Knesset members of his party are Orthodox, they’re – unlike the members representing the other Orthodox parties – ardent Zionists and thus anxious to integrate allIsrael’s citizens (perhaps even the Arabs) into the fabric of the state.
We must also bear in mind that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – which has eleven of the 31 Knesset seats of the combined list headed by Netanyahu – is committed to curbing the power of the current ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate to satisfy its Russian voters whose Jewish status is often questioned. Therefore, Lieberman is bound to be in favour of Lapid’s and Bennett’s stance.
And soon a new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is about to be elected. One of the candidates is Rabbi David Stav. An organization that seeks to bridge the gap between the religious and the secular is placing large ads in the newspapers advocating his election. As the head of the less rigid Zionist rabbinic organization Tsohar, Stav is considered to have the potential of giving religion a better name in Israel by perhaps seeking to integrate all strata of Israeli society.
Despite Israeli secular politicians’ often cynical tolerance of ultra-Orthodox excesses and even allowing for the obsolescence of the institution of the Chief Rabbinate, there’re reasons to anticipate some important changes in the current almost intolerable state-and-religion situation.
Of course, when push comes to shove it’s very likely that Netanyahu will find reasons to soften the demands of Lapid and others to delay implementation by claiming security and economic considerations that must take priority, it’s nevertheless not unreasonable to conclude that the shift toward the centre in the balance of power in the next Knesset may inevitably bring about changes also in this field. These may take much longer than anticipated, but at least some of them are likely to happen.
That doesn’t mean that non-Orthodox religious Judaism is about to be recognized in Israel. For those who advocate changes in matters of military service and education aren’t likely to show much commitment to Reform and Conservative Judaism. But loosening the grip of ultra-Orthodoxy and perhaps a more liberal Chief Rabbi are bound to remove some of the obstacles that continue to make life difficult for many of us.