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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

Jewish Values

January 27, 2002
Marc Rosenstein

The other day, at our study group, Y. asked for an opportunity to speak for a few minutes “off the topic.” She is a very articulate, young orthodox woman; married, she always covers her head, though the covering is sometimes a baseball cap. Her comments related to the ongoing strike of the handicapped, who have been sitting in for weeks in the government complex in Jerusalem, demanding more humane benefits from the National Insurance (equivalent of social security). That evening, a public demonstration was planned in Tel Aviv, and Y. urged us to end class early and go there to participate. “Why is it that for demonstrations in support of settling the West Bank, the orthodox can fill a hundred buses, but when it comes to issues of social justice no one seems interested?”

There was some discussion. Most people agreed with her arguments and supported the cause, but felt that such a major trip on no notice was not practical (the group meets in Tivon, 2 hours drive from Tel Aviv) - and guiltily, we went on with class. Y. indeed left early and participated in the demonstration, which attracted a small crowd.

Y.’s plea was important, a sad commentary on what Zionism has done to orthodoxy: since the beginnings of Zionist settlement, non-Zionist orthodoxy in Israel has increasingly closed itself off from contact with modernity, and has set itself up as the opposition to liberal democracy and to civil society; meanwhile, since 1967 Zionist orthodoxy has become increasingly preoccupied with the Land of Israel and settling - and holding - Judea, Samaria, and Gaza.

No doubt the life in orthodox communities, from orthodox kibbutzim to Meah Shearim, is value-centered and humane, with living traditions of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim. But in Israeli society at large, non-Zionist orthodoxy - generally referred to as “ultra-orthodoxy” in the English language media - is perceived as corrupt, exploitative, building personal fortunes and parochial institutions at the expense of the general welfare and especially the welfare of the weakest elements in society (e.g., the handicapped, the sick). Thus, in the popular mind, Judaism the religion has come to be seen as a force of injustice, not justice. The ultra-orthodox themselves, of course, perceive themselves as an embattled minority, in danger of extinction if they do not use the political system effectively to preserve their communities. Indeed, in the political arena, when the ultra-orthodox parties pursue their own ideological/institutional interests, the price is paid out of education and social welfare budgets of the nation at large (as no one would suggest paying them at the expense of the defense budget...).

Zionist orthodoxy (characterized by crocheted yarmulkes and modern dress), on the other hand, is committed to the state, as a modern democracy. It gave rise to one of the most interesting experiments in Israel, the religious kibbutz, combining Jewish and socialist values. And yet, since 1967, Zionist orthodoxy has come to be seen as the bulwark of the right-wing political establishment, singlemindedly committed to the settlements in West Bank and Gaza at the expense of all other commitments and values.

That leaves most Israelis (and I have checked this, with group of both teens and adults) believing that there is no connection between Judaism and social justice. That you are a “good person” is seen as having nothing to do with the fact that you happen to be Jewish. Isaiah and Jeremiah are studied, if at all, as difficult texts to be mastered for the matriculation exams. No one thinks of them as speaking to us. Which is maybe a good thing, because if they did speak to us, they would certainly say things we don’t want to hear.


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