by Dovid Landesman
Events in the last twenty-four hours have caused my inherent uncertainties about life in Israel to resurface. This afternoon I attended the mass demonstration [peaceful and orderly, thank God] in support of the parents from Emanuel who were sentenced to jail terms for contempt of court in refusing to re-enroll their daughters in the local Beis Yaakov as per the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court. My conflicts began as I made my way toward Rechov Yirmiyahu where the rally was to take place. I passed a young man wearing a knitted kippah, holding a placard that read “sinat chinam” (needless hatred). I asked him to whom he was referring and he answered, “the demonstrators.” The early afternoon sun was brutally hot, so it was critical that I try hard not to loose my cool. I calmly asked him, “Do you really feel qualified to make that kind of accusation against Rav Elyashiv and Rav Aron Leib Shteinman?” Noticing his perplexed demeanor, I walked away, wondering why he did not understand what I wanted from him.
Permit me to share my feelings and fears with you. As a caveat, I am convinced by evidence that I have personally witnessed through the years that there is a great deal of prejudice within the Ashkenazi Torah world against Sefaradim. That said, it has become clear to me that the issue in the Emanuel case has nothing to do with classical discrimination. If I wanted to enroll my daughter in the Chassidishe Beis Yaakov there, I have no doubt that she would be denied entry – despite her impeccably pure, white blood! Moreover, I accept that the school would be justified in their refusal.
The school – and it does not matter whether or not you agree with the criteria which they have set for admission – established objective requirements which relate solely to lifestyle issues. An argument might be raised that in a small community like Emanuel establishing such criteria might be economically unfeasible and given the limited number of potential students, compromises should be expected. However, this suggestion was never presented as a factor to the court nor was it mentioned as a basis for the court’s ruling.
Actually, a percentage of girls of mixed or Sefaradi lineage [up to 30%] were enrolled in the Chassidic school because their parents were willing to accept the stringencies of the school’s codes of conduct. The court refused to acknowledge this – basically labeling these parents as Uncle Toms. It is far beyond the purview of this discussion to examine why these parents would want their daughters to attend the chassidic school. It is also none of my business.
Interestingly, the organizers of the demonstration cleverly emphasized the point that the school was integrated by reciting selichot according to the Sefaradi custom, pronunciation and niggun. Additionally, the parent chosen to speak on behalf of those being incarcerated was Sefaradi.
It is extremely difficult to estimate how many people took part in the demonstration. I am sure that the numbers that will be quoted in Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post will be significantly lower than the number cited in HaModia or Yated. By all accounts, however, there were many thousands there. What concerns me is that the crowd was so homogeneous. There was a vast sea of black hats – Borsalinos and chassidic - with but a paltry few kippot serugot. Where was the bulk of the Mercaz/yeshivot hesder crowd? [Reportedly, Rabbi Ezra Melamed shlita of Beit El did encourage participation.]
Why would I think they would participate in a demonstration that dealt with an issue involving the chareidi world? Because a statement by Justice Levi of the Israeli Supreme Court succinctly focused on the real issue that the Emanuel case raises. Levi, one of the three jurors on the panel and ostensibly a religious Jew, remarked during the deliberations: “No court verdict requires the approval of any rabbi.” It is apparent that in his view, if there is a conflict between Torah and the decisions of government bodies, one is obligated to follow the latter.
You and I might feel that in this case there is no such conflict and nothing would happen if the chassidic girls attended an integrated school. Nevertheless, in the eyes of those involved – primarily Slonimer chassidim following the instructions of their rebbe – this is clearly a situation where the court is demanding that they make compromises in areas that are of critical importance to them. The essential problem is that an avowedly secular court feels no constraints in issuing decisions in areas in which they should not be intervening. This has transpired a number of times in the history of the State – e.g., the mihu yehudi [who is a Jew] question where the court felt that it was competent to decide an issue that is clearly halachic. This is as absurd as having Arab members of the Knesset vote on legislation regarding the validity of conversions to Judaism!
The fundamental issue – and it is here that I would expect the dati leumi crowd to be equally concerned – is the primacy of Torah within the State. Some of this came to fore during the disengagement from Gush Katif when a number of rabbinical figures within the dati world ruled that halachically the withdrawal was prohibited and that soldiers were therefore duty bound to refuse to follow orders. Inevitably, in a democratic society there will be conflicts between the interests of the majority and the rights of the minority. How is a minority – whose position is supported by the halachic authorities whose decisions they follow – supposed to act when there is an irreconcilable conflict between Torah and secular law? Can they in good conscience compromise their fealty to halachah?
In the period immediately preceding the declaration of the State, Ben Gurion reached an accord with R. Yitzchak Meir Levin zt”l [the status quo agreement] delineating certain limited areas where the State would recognize the primacy of Torah over secular norms – most notably in family law. Ben Gurion understood, as his subsequent silent agreement to accept the Chazon Ish’s view on giyus banot (conscription of women) would suggest, that there were areas that demanded that the secular majority forego its natural rights, perhaps recognizing that the State would only be viable if it gave Torah a visible role. Many have speculated about Ben Gurion’s motivations; whatever they were it formed the basis for a modus vivendi that held up for a considerable number of years.
The present court, however, seems to feel that it has no reason to continue the gestures of the majority toward the minority. On the contrary, it seems to feel that the unwritten constitution of the State which it seeks to impose despite not having any legal right to do so, gives the court the right to render decisions on any issue that it decides is within its purview. The justices feel that they are uniquely qualified to render decisions on these issues; as per Judge Levi’s comment. I would expect this to frighten every Torah observant Jew around the world.
In my heart, I suspect that this might have been part of the motivation of the Satmar Rebbe zt”l in vociferously rejecting the idea of statehood before the coming of mashiach (the Messiah). There are problems that might well be unsolvable without mashiach - conflicts that no amount of good will can resolve. Is there any logical reason why a secular Jew should accept restrictions on his personal freedoms so as to pacify his religious brother? Perhaps he might be willing to do it for a limited period of time and in clearly defined areas. But why should he, for example, forego the right to marry a divorcee because his father was a kohen? On the other hand, how can an observant Jew compromise on issues that the Torah and our rabbis clearly consider halachic? Can we allow Jews who deny the authority of Torah to make decisions that have halachic ramifications? The rebbe zt”l held that this could not be done, and now sixty two years after the declaration of statehood, the issues that seem to crop up daily lead me to speculate that we may soon reach the point where we will have to make some very tough decisions. Can we, the religious world, continue to support the State based on the present political and judicial climate? I shudder to consider the answer.
[Rabbi Dovid Landesman resides in Ramat Beit Shemesh where he comments on the foibles of living in Eretz Yisrael. He recently published THERE ARE NO BASKETBALL COURTS IN HEAVEN - a collection of essays on Jewish themes.]