Israel's ultra-Orthodox wield power in politics and religion

August 01, 1993|By Jeffrey M. Landaw


David Landau

Hill & Wang

358 pages,$27.50 Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard recently quoted the social historian George Weigel: The "unsecularization of the world is one of the dominant social facts of life in the late 20th century." You don't have to spell that out to the Israelis, whose governments can fall on the word of a rabbi. That's just what happens in the opening scene of David Landau's book, a comprehensive, conscientious look at ultra-Orthodox Jews -- in Hebrew, the haredim -- who, however they seem to outsiders, can't be ignored.

Mr. Landau's book is far less penetrating than "Defenders of the Faith," Samuel Heilman's anthropological study of Israel's haredim, published last year, but the books have different purposes. Dr. Heilman is an academic observer-participant whose focus is cultural; Mr. Landau, an Israeli journalist (and no relation to the reviewer), stresses the political and sticks to the self-effacing style of the good reporter.

He notes that Israel's haredim face a possible "demographic crisis" brought on by pressures on men to have large families while spending full time at religious studies rather than at paying work. They depend more and more on charity from outside Israel -- and on an Israeli government whose non-haredi majority resents them. Even a reader who doesn't share the haredim's view that their prayer and study sustain the world might question whether Mr. Landau recognizes religious study for its own sake as a virtue.

The Orthodox are also likely to disapprove of his inclusion, as an illustration, of a page of the Talmud, the compilation of law, history and comment that traditional Jews put on a similar if not equal footing with the Bible. The inclusion makes his book a religious object that must be ritually buried if damaged.

Still, Mr. Landau also describes the real striving for goodness of many haredi spiritual leaders, and the fact that for them, charity "is not a mere facet of life. . . . It is the breath of life; part of the essence." He cites distortions and errors by all sides in handling such issues as the history and politics of the Holocaust -- an event, he says, the haredim's "crime-and-punishment approach to all history" enabled them to integrate and transcend.

Such problems as the Talmud illustration are hard to separate from the book's purpose. Mr. Landau assumes far less knowledge of Jewish belief and culture in his readers than Dr. Heilman did in his, and he can't explain his politics without reference to the beliefs that move them.

Those beliefs, and their consequences, are fascinating. In 1948-'49, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's thoroughly secular founding leader, exempted haredi religious students from military service

as a concession to what he thought was a dying remnant. Two generations later, "there are already more students studying at more yeshivas, more laymen studying in more shiurim [religious classes], and far more works of scholarship being published, than in the heyday of Polish and Russian Jewry."

And the haredim, theoretically anti-Zionist, field three political parties: one dominated by the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch Hasidim, one by the cerebral, elitist Lithuanians, and one for the Sephardim, or Jews of Middle Eastern ancestry.

The best part of this book is the tour of the "complex paradox" of haredi politics. Agudah Israel, the Lubavitch-led party, takes the hardest possible line on territorial compromise, while Shas, the Sephardic party, joined a dovish Labor-led government. Mr. Landau explains how that government's need for religious validation would, after the book was published, make it take more trouble to keep Shas as a partner than it would for a larger party, the leftist, militantly secular Meretz.

There are other good things in the book, but they all take a back seat to the politics, and to the specter that haunts it: schism.

Israel's Law of Return, guaranteeing automatic citizenship to anyone either born Jewish or converted to Judaism, makes a permanent issue of the validity of marriages, divorces and, most of all, conversions by non-Orthodox authorities outside the country; in Israel, Ben-Gurion's compromise gives the Orthodox control of such matters. In 1983, Reform Judaism decided to accept as Jews the children of Jewish fathers and Gentile mothers, a break with tradition that angered the haredim, the modern Orthodox and even the other principal non-Orthodox denomination, the Conservatives.

That led to the "Who is a Jew" crisis of 1988-89, when only raw muscle by the Jewish establishment in the United States and Europe kept Israel's parliament from denying automatic citizenship to those converted by non-Orthodox rabbis. It would have meant, after 4,000 years, a formal split in the Jewish people.

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