Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Israeli Religious Zionism is not Anglo Modern Orthodoxy (guest post)

I don't think I've ever had a guest post on this blog, but my friend Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff has put together a wonderful primer on the nature(s) of Religious Zionism in Israel, and I have found it most instructive. With his permission, I am posting it here:

Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff, Moshav Hemed, 
Marcheshvan 5773  /  November 2012

This article should provide an introduction to the religious Zionist community in Israel, and the great variety of world outlooks subsumed under that title.

Members of "the religious Zionist community" (RZC) in Israel share a common commitment to Torah and mitzvot, and to living according to halakha.  They also share a favorable attitude towards the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which they see as bearing religious significance. They are committed to the welfare and the unity of the Jewish people, and to the continued ingathering of our exiles.

Yet, while these shared beliefs and commitments hold them together loosely, nevertheless they may be divided into several distinct groups based on several factors.  I will describe them briefly, "min ha-kal el ha-kaved" (from the "lighter" to the "heavier"). I will not relate to the fact that there are RZ people in different proportions in all of Israel's political parties, which are constantly shuffling and reshuffling both personally and ideologically.

1) Some of the divisions are along "country of origin" lines – much more complex than just Sephardi-Ashkenazi, but rather Yemenite/Moroccan/Syrian/Iraqi/Turkish (for a start) and Polish/German/Russian/Western European/English-speaking countries (for a start). These distinctions are becoming increasingly blurred as marriages across these lines have been increasing in frequency for two generations or more, yet they still play a divisive role, particularly in the establishment of community synagogues or prayer groups along these lines. Nevertheless, it is unusual to find genuine hostility across these lines in the RZC.

2) Another division is along geographical lines in Israel: one can identify significant differences between center/urban/well-established communities on one hand and periphery/rural (kibbutz and moshav)/newer towns in Yehuda and Shomron.

3) Yet another division has to do with perceived level of religious observance (I emphasize the word "perceived"; it concerns both how people perceive themselves and how they perceive others).  The range is from "dati light" (still sometimes called "mizrachinik", a pejorative term that is largely historical) through "dati" and on to "chardali" (acronym of charedim le'umi'im, national "stricter" Orthodox).

In the next two sections, about rabbanim and yeshivot, I will list some of "the major players". I will not characterize them, and will not "give them grades".  Each one is excellent, and each is different from every other. Some of them can be grouped together with others, but I will not indicate who is associated with whom.  Where I can, I will give an internet address for the rabbanim and the yeshivot, and you, the reader, can form your own impression from the image each one chooses to present himself/itself.  Do not lend any importance to the number of links I attach to any one name.  With that introduction, let's continue.

4) There are followers, admirers, students, and others who adhere to different rabbanim, each of whom has his own "camp". Here are twelve from among the major RZ publicly recognized rabbinic leaders and educators with significant followings and who differ on various ideological issues on which they take public stands (in no special order).  They are prolific writers; some of the links below can lead you to their books and articles. 

R; Yaakov Ariel (Ramat Gan - http://www.haravariel.com/ and a sample teshuva on cloning:  http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/kitveyet/shana/ariel-1.htm),

R. Yuval Cherlow (Petach Tikva - http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%99%D7%95%D7%91%D7%9C_%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%9C%D7%95  See some sample shiurim at:

R. Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein (and his colleagues at Elon Shevut –
and many shiurim can be accessed at http://etzion.haretzion.org/

R. Eliezer Melamed (Berakha – http://yhb.org.il/?page_id=458

and here is an item on his magnum opus on the Rambam
and an interview at

And see shiurim at his site, http://ybn.co.il/
And about his method of studying Tanakh:  http://www.ypt.co.il/show.asp?id=20296

And see his site:  http://ravsherki.org/

These and/or their students and/or their followers appear in print or in public forums frequently, and are asked by "the media" to express their opinions on public issues frequently
There are more.  Indeed, the RZ world is blessed with a very large number of genuine talmidei chakhamim and communal leaders, many of them young and on their way up in the public's awareness.  The absence of the name of any particular Rav from the list above should not be taken as a reflection on his Torah greatness or of his influence. The list is far from exhaustive.  Here is a report of a meeting of a dozen "elders" of RZ rabbanim in the winter of 5772, where you can see the names of some other prominent figures:  http://www.srugim.co.il/25949-%D7%91%D7%93%D7%A8%D7%9A-%D7%9C%D7%90%D7%97%D7%93%D7%95%D7%AA-%D7%9B%D7%99%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%A1-%D7%A9%D7%9C-%D7%96%D7%A7%D7%A0%D7%99-%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%A0%D7%99-%D7%94%D7%A6%D7%99%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%AA?di=1

5)  There are divisions based on association with various yeshivot. The RZC has grown considerably in the past two generations.  Tens of thousands of "graduates" of the various RZ yeshivot , each with markedly different ideologies (see below), are "out there" in Israeli society – either as individuals or in communities and urban "gar'inim Torani'im"  - in the IDF, and in the various RZ educational systems and institutions, each trying to influence Israeli society in general and the RZC in particular in his own direction.  

Here are thirteen of the major yeshivot with significant numbers of graduates and followings, whose leaders do not see eye-to-eye on various ideological issues.  I cannot do justice to a description of the nuanced differences between them in this brief post.  You can form your own impression by visiting the internet sites maintained by the various institutions (see below).  Each exerts a major influence on its immediate surrounding community and throughout the RZC and Israel, through its teachers, students, and graduates, and through a variety of powerful educational and public service initiatives.

Har Berakha (http://yhb.org.il/),

Kerem B'Yavneh  (http://www.kby.org/hebrew/)

Birkat Moshe (Ma'aleh Adumim) (http://www.ybm.org.il/Hebrew/)

Ramat Gan (http://www.yrg.org.il/),

'Ateret Yerushalayim (used to be 'Ateret Cohanim) (http://www.ateret.org.il/hebrew/),

Petach Tikva (http://www.ypt.co.il/)

It is not possible to list them all, not even the ones of major importance.  I leave it to the reader to examine the nuances of the differences between them.  One should add to the leading yeshivot: 'Eli, Ma'alot, 'Otniel, 'Or 'Etzion, Shavei Hevron, and Nir-Kiryat Arba. Each has its own unique character.
Another institution that should be mentioned because of its influence on many young RZ men and women, although it is not usually thought of as a yeshiva because of its association with Bar-Ilan University, is HaMakhon Ha-Gavoah L'Torah (http://www.mgl.org.il/).

It is also important to note that there are RZ institutions for the advanced Jewish education of women.  Here are seven among the most influential – again, with significant differences in orientation, and in no particular order –

Ha-Midrasha L'Nashim at Bar-Ilan University (http://midrasha.biu.ac.il/),

Midreshet Ha-Rova (http://harova.org/site/),

Midreshet Lindenbaum (http://www.lind.org.il/),

the women's program at Beit Morasha (http://www.bmj.org.il/),

Midreshet Nishmat (http://www.nishmat.net/),
MaTaN – Midreshet Torah l'Nashim (http://www.matan.org.il/).

The absence of any particular yeshiva or women's institution from the list above should not be construed as reflecting on its significance, the greatness of its heads, or its influence.  The list is not intended to be exhaustive.  I personally find the rich variety among these RZC institutions to be exciting, stimulating, and inspiring (even where I don't agree with this or that ideological preference or educational approach) – all of these different world-views, and they are all Religious Zionist!

6) Now a brief word about divisions within the Israeli RZC according to positions on certain ideological issues.  

Unlike American Modern Orthodoxy, not all RZC groupings, institutions, and leaders, share favorable attitudes towards 1 - "contemporary Western culture and democracy" (which they do not all define in the same terms), 2 - academic/scientific/professional education/scholarship/achievement, and 3 - women and their involvement in public life and increased non-traditional public religious activities.
The ideological differences between the various RZ groups are too difficult to summarize briefly. The ideological dividing lines are often highly nuanced; an outsider would find it difficult to understand why the opposing sides fight with such vigor. Yet one who wants to understand the Israeli religious Zionist scene should be aware that - although all RZC groups have much more in common than divides them, yet the differences that rise to the surface mean a lot to them all, and do produce genuine flare-ups from time to time.

Let me add one more word about RZ rabbinical groups in Israel.  Tzohar is well-known by now (http://www.tzohar.org.il/).  Less well known are three groups from the past two years. One is actually a group that had become dormant, but reorganized and expanded beginning in Kislev 5771, "Derekh Emunah".  Its member rabbis are primarily former students of R. Tzvi Yehuda Kook zt"l of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, whose principal aim is to promulgate their teacher's heritage concerning the centrality of Eretz Yisrael in Jewish spiritual life.  The second group, "the rabbis' forum", is an informal closed email google group of some 300 Israeli community rabbanim and high level educators that began after Purim 5771. The members represent a rich variety of ideological approaches, and the forum provides a meeting place in which halakhic, hashkafic and communal issues are discussed intensively from every possible perspective.  The third group, "Bet Hillel", was formed less than a year ago, and seeks to provide a moderate rabbinic voice, attentive to public needs, on the Israeli scene.  It includes scholarly women in its ranks as equal members with the rabbanim. See http://www.facebook.com/B.Hillel.

One who desires to understand the rich tapestry of Torah that the RZ world is producing would do well to understand the complexity of the picture outlined above.  R. Eliyahu the Gaon of Vilna wrote at the beginning of his commentary to Mishlei (Proverbs) of the importance of knowing whose thoughts you are reading, who his ancestors were, what position he holds, and where he comes from, in order to understand and value his Torah.

Nevertheless, I recommend keeping in mind the following story I heard recently, that happened here in Israel.  A young man from one of the RZ yeshivot above had met a learned young RZ woman.  They met a few times to examine the possibility of marriage and building a family together.  The young woman, however, was plagued with uncertainty.  She kept asking the young man about the views of his rebbeim on various issues, and wasn't always happy about the answers.  On their fourth date, after she continued her inquiries, he said to her, "Why do you keep asking me what my rebbeim think?  Why don't you want to know what I think?" Startled, she realized she had been on the wrong track, and followed his suggestion.  They now are a happy couple, beginning a promising life together. 

Please remember: the only way to know a person is through personal contact.

May G-d grant strength (= Torah) to His people, and may G-d bless His people with peace (= harmony and mutual respect, with appreciation of the spiritual wealth G-d grants us in making us all different from each other).



  1. An interesting summary, but there's as lot more than just listing the Rabbinic leaders and institutes of learning. Knowing some of the major and minor communities themselves is also a large part of understanding. I'm also surprised not to see any mention of Kibbutz HaDati or B'nai Akiva. Will Uncle David be responding directly here, or do I have to email him directly? :)


    1. Good observations, Reuven. Indeed, the richness of variety includes urban and rural communities, which I hinted at all too briefly under the "geographical" heading, although I realize what separates these communities is often ideology, not just geography. Some of the urban communities are organized around batei kenesset, whose tone is sometimes set by the rabbi, but more often by the lay leaders. Kibbutz HaDati is important from an ideological perspective, but, in spite of its central position decades ago, it is at most very marginal in its influence on general RZ society today.
      In the interest of a modicum of brevity, I chose not to get into the web of RZ organizations or youth groups (B'nei Akiva, Ezra, even "mevakshei hashem).

  2. Reuven has stimulated my thinking, and I would like to add another dimension to the wealth and variety of RZ world views. That is expressed in the dozens of "parshat shavua" flyers, mini-booklets and mini-magazines that are distributed weekly to over 4,000 batei kenesset in Israel. It is not uncommon to see RZ Jews reading these in shul during davening or the Torah reading. Again, there are too many to list here. Some of the leading ones are "Shabbat b'Shabbato", "Ma'ayanei HaYeshuah", "Tzohar l'Shabbat", and a long list of others, each with its uniquely nuanced RZ approach! A weekly that may be influential particularly with the younger set is "'Olam Katan". A perusal of back issues will give the reader considerable insight into what is going on in the young and the not-so-young RZ world today. Indeed, one issue last year had a rare interview with one of the heads of Yeshivat Har HaMor, who usually disdain press appearances. I meant to include a link in the list above for Yeshivat HaMor, but couldn't find it in time: See pages 6-7 at http://www.olam-katan.co.il/all_gilyonot/346.pdf

  3. This is a really useful list! Thank you, Dr. Mescheloff, for taking the time, and thank you, R. Torzcyner, for posting!