Religious Affairs: The battle in Religious Zionism



Jul. 16, 2009

In the latest salvo in the ongoing war between two vying camps over the future of religious Zionism, haredi-leaning rabbis this week torpedoed the appointment of a liberal-minded professor as president of a popular teachers college.

To protest the move, hundreds of more liberal-minded rabbis – many affiliated with the religious kibbutz movement – as well as religious Zionist youths and educators held a collective learning session/demonstration across the street from the Ramat Gan Hesder Yeshiva Wednesday night.

The venue was chosen as protest against the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, who recently labeled some more liberal-minded religious Zionist leaders as “neo-reformers.”

The liberals earned the name, said Shapira, because they favored coed education in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and supported a greater role for women in religious leadership, including as rabbis. Shapira also lamented the willingness of some religious Zionist rabbis to allow older single women, whose biological clock for baby bearing was running down, to use artificial insemination.



Prof. Shmuel Glick, who might fall under the category of a neo-reformer from the point of view of the haredi-leaning religious Zionist rabbis, heads the Schocken Institute for Jewish Research of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS). He was labeled as unfit to serve as head of the Lifshitz College, which trains dozens of hesder yeshiva graduates to teach in elementary and high schools, due to his ties with the Conservative Movement.

The battle over Glick’s appointment is just one of several push-button issues that have divided religious Zionism’s left and right in recent months. Perhaps the most salient example of the rift within religious Zionism was the failed unification of two political parties that represent the rival camps – Habayit Hayehudi (HH) on the left and the National Union (NU) on the right.

The two parties – and the two camps – are split on many central issues from rabbinic intervention in politics (NU, like haredi parties, is subject to the authority of a council of rabbinic sages; HH is not), to the centrality of Greater Israel as a religious priority that overrides other considerations such as obeying IDF orders (NU-affiliated rabbis support insubordination if a soldier is ordered to evacuate Jewish settlements; HH affiliated rabbis do not).

Haredi-leaning religious Zionist rabbis tend to be more suspicious of academic freedom in the fields of humanities and social sciences, while more liberal rabbis are more open-minded, even to ideas such as Bible criticism which seem to undermine faith in a God-given Torah.

For instance, Elhanan Shilo, a lecturer at Orot, a teachers training school for women, was forced out recently because he allegedly was teaching Bible criticism. Another lecturer at Orot, Dr. Chana Kehat, a veteran member of the Orthodox feminist organization Kolech, is fighting to retain her teaching position against pressure from more conservative-minded staff.

The successful campaign against Glick was led by Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Elon Moreh. Meanwhile, Glick received support from Efrat Chief Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and other rabbis there who know him personally.

In a letter to Lifshitz’s board of directors, Glick’s opponents threatened to remove about 130 students of theirs from the school if he were appointed to replace Dr. Ya’acov Haddany as its head. Haddany has already agreed to step down by next year.

As a result of the threat, which would seriously reduce Lifshitz’s student body and hurt the institute’s financial stability, board members decided to cave in, although attempts are still being made to reach a compromise.

Glick teaches at the Schechter Institute, which also has a rabbinical seminary that trains Conservative (Masorti) rabbis. In addition, the Schocken Institute which he heads is associated with the JTS, the US seminary for Conservative rabbis.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Glick, who belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in his hometown of Efrat, defined himself as someone “committed to Torah and mitzvot” but refused to label himself as belonging to any denomination, Orthodox, Conservative or other.

Levanon could not be reached, however a spokesman for Beit El’s Rabbi Zalman Melamed, who also signed the letter against Glick, explained the rabbinic opposition to his appointment: “We don’t want our students being educated in an institution headed by a man who does not share our outlook on issues of education and theology,” he said.

He added that the rabbis never tried to use intimidation. “They simply said that if Glick were appointed as head, we would be forced to send our students elsewhere.”

He gave an example of Glick’s thinking which he felt was inappropriate in a “Torah institution.”

“Glick recently wrote that rabbis were influenced by the individuals who asked them questions on Halacha, as if somehow rabbis’ decisions could be distorted by the questions they are asked. We cannot send our students to an institute headed by a man who has no respect for rabbis.”

Glick, who coordinates research on rabbinical responsa in the Cairo Geniza manuscripts at Taylor-Schechter Geniza Research Unit at Cambridge University, is a prolific writer who has published books on a variety of subjects connected with rabbinical literature.

In August he will publish a fifth volume of Source-Book for the History of Jewish Education, which focuses on rabbinic responsa from the 16th to 20th centuries in Europe.

Glick was originally chosen to replace Haddany in part because Lifshitz College wanted to begin offering advanced degrees. According to educational regulations, only institutes headed by a professor are qualified to do so. Glick had hoped to transform Lifshitz from a college that focused strictly on training teachers into an institute of higher learning that provided graduates with a wider range of knowledge in the humanities and social sciences.

He felt that by doing so his graduates would have wider intellectual horizons and would not be restricted to remaining in the teaching profession if they did not want to.

In a letter to Lifshitz’s board, which backtracked on a previous decision to ratify his appointment, Glick wrote that his “heart went out to Lifshitz, which used to be the flagship of national religious education and has since become a ‘haredi-national’ institution that values parochialism over openness, and separation over integration.”

A group of rabbis now hopes to change educational regulations so that a rabbinical figure will be recognized as equal in status to a tenured professor for the purpose of heading an educational institute that provides advanced degrees.

Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan Ya’acov Ariel said that it was unfair that someone like himself could not teach in a university or head an institution that provides advanced degrees. “That is discrimination. We are willing to recognize them but they are not willing to recognize us.”

Ariel said that the very fact that Glick taught at an institute that was identified with the Conservative Movement raised troublesome doubts, although it was not enough to disqualify him.

Ariel did say that there were certain subjects and teaching approaches that should be off limits in teachers training institutes. “Bible criticism should be forbidden because it totally undermines the belief in a God-given Torah,” he said. “Teachers should also treat rabbis and sages with utmost respect. We are talking about training teachers who will be teaching the next generation of religious children. We must be careful to convey to them the correct messages.”

Shmuel Shatach, executive director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, one of the liberal religious Zionist organizations that participated in the learning session, said that he was concerned about the direction in which religious Zionist education was headed.

“Many religious Zionist elementary schools, yeshiva high schools and ulpanot [girls high schools] have a very haredi environment that makes people like me feel uncomfortable,” said Shatach, who teaches Talmud in a religious high school. “These schools have adopted strict modesty codes and close-minded approaches to secular studies. Many of my friends are either changing their professions or transferring to secular or mixed schools.

“The truth is that we have no one to blame but ourselves. We have allowed the haredi-nationalists to take over. And I have to admit that I respect them: They have the ideological motivation to enter into a profession that pays next to nothing because they believe in what they are doing. I guess we are not willing to make such a selfless sacrifice.”

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