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The intersection of politics and religion

Knesset Member Aryeh Deri speaks with Knesset Member Avi Maoz during a vote for representatives for the judge-picking panel at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, July 12, 2023. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A friend of mine recently wrote to me with some of his thoughts as they related to the ultra-Orthodox and their insatiable interest in politics.

He asked: “When will Israelis finally understand that their vote – even for a supposedly moderate right-wing party, ends up being a vote for the ultra-Orthodox to take control?” He laments that these religious parties, of today, are all about control and gaining more funds for their special-interest groups and people, unlike the ultra-Orthodox of years past.

His questions and comments were actually very well-addressed in an article by the former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz, who brought up the point that when something is not achievable for the ultra-Orthodox, they make it happen by introducing a new law that will facilitate whatever it is they are trying to accomplish.

In his article entitled, “The race for chief rabbi: What it says about Israel,” Katz describes the situation between twice-convicted criminal and Shas party leader, Aryeh Deri, who was fired in January from his position as Interior Minister head due to the recently overturned 'Unreasonable Law,' wherein the Supreme Court denied his ability to serve as a government minister because of his past convictions.

Aryeh Deri’s older brother, Yehuda is presently serving as chief rabbi of Beersheva but aspires to become Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi. The problem is that someone else is vying for the same role, and that “someone else,” happens to be the son of the late spiritual leader of the Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. This creates a dilemma for Aryeh Deri since much of his support comes from Yosef’s followers who want to see David, the son of Ovadia, become the next Chief Rabbi. 

No problem! The only thing standing in the way is the lack of a new law. Poof! Now there is one. That special law, which was recently passed, granted an accommodation of time, wherein the decision, of who becomes Chief Rabbi, would be delayed in order to maneuver things to go as they hoped. 

But it doesn’t stop here. The Shas party proposed yet another law which would grant more authority to the religious services minister, allowing him to “appoint city rabbis at the expense of mayors. Another proposed law will significantly increase salaries for religious council heads.”

And even that’s not the end. The self-serving purveyors of religion are making sure that the first helpings go to their own. Just this past week, 165 million shekels (over $45 million USD) was added to the already enormous budget allotted for yeshiva students, because why not? The very same students, for which another Orthodox-sponsored bill was introduced, putting Torah study on par with military service, will get more benefits, just because their benefactors have the power to funnel it to them.

Of course, none of these deeply religious benefactors would ever consider that the money might be better spent for soldiers who, in the service of their country, receive insufficient monthly stipends. No! After all, they’re just in the business of protecting us all rather than spending hours in the pursuit of more spiritual endeavors. 

In all of this, the one very obvious thing is that there is nothing godly or spiritual in religious parties which employ all methods of manipulating the system in order to garner power and money for themselves and theirs. 

Although these religious parties may think that we, the citizens of Israel, don’t take notice of their antics, they only have to look at the ever-growing numbers of protesters, each week, who are fed up with a system that is one-sided, power-hungry and ready to wheel and deal at the expense of everyone else.

My friend says that the religious must live within certain parameters which are fair and reasonable, and would be the only way to show their goodwill so that we can finally see them as equal partakers in the country’s welfare. His proposal to them is as follows:

  • Orthodox schools should receive the same support as other schools, but only with the proviso that they teach core subjects, which would then enable these students to find employment rather than reliance on state support.

  • Orthodox men cannot be supported to forever remain yeshiva students – even into their later years. At some point, these men must be self-supporting.

  • Anyone who, due to conscience, refuses to serve in the army will have to commit to national service, without exception.

Of course, the likelihood of all of this happening, given that the ultra-religious wield the power, at the moment, is zero. In order for a change to take place, it will first demand a rejection of the status quo, where voters, as my friend says, finally recognize that their same choice at the ballot box only leads to the same consequences; a heavy-handed attempt at taking over the system in a way that only works for one segment of the population.

In other words, the change must start with us. Until we are prepared to send a strong message, rejecting the intersection of politics and religion, we cannot complain and mourn over the dirty and corrupt practices which are commonplace in our society, because we are the ones perpetuating their practices which benefit them, literally at our expense.

In truth, it defies all understanding how individuals who purport to hold deeply religious convictions, are able to justify their desire to control everything and enrich those who support them. None of those things are inspiring, selfless or merciful to others – all hallmarks of true spirituality. 

After all, is it not the Almighty upon whom we are supposed to rely for all things? Is it not He who raises up and lowers those whom He will (Psalm 75:7), so why should any of us, especially whoever claims to be religious, seek out power, control and wealth? It seems that the pursuit of those things, if anything, is the antithesis of godly reliance.

In order to be the “restorer of the streets in which we dwell,” we are called to “feed the hungry, help the afflicted, clothe the naked, provide shelter for the homeless and remove the yoke from our midst.” (Isaiah 58) Until the intersection of politics and religion yields those goals, we might all do better to solely concentrate our efforts on how we can live more godly lives in a way that will then be able to truly inspire others. 

Politics can wait, but the soul of a nation cannot, and we must never lose ours to those who can’t see beyond their own loyal subjects.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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