Sunday, January 23, 2005

Dunner doesn't get it

Pini Dunner, London's most media-savvy young haredi rabbi, applauds the United Torah Judaism party's decision to join the Sharon coalition, seeing in it the return of "the left-leaning non-Zionist haredim" and the defeat of the religious Zionists, who "now find themselves on the fringes of Israel's political scene fighting to preserve their raison-d'etre before the house of cards comes tumbling down over their heads."

Undermining his analysis, Rabbi Dunner misinterprets nearly every faction of Israeli politics, including his fellow haredim.

Let's start with terminology. What does he mean by "non-Zionist haredim"? Zionism is the belief that there should be a Jewish state in the historical Land of Israel. Does Dunner believe that Israeli haredim are indifferent to the existence of the Jewish state? That they would be nonplussed were the state to cease to exist, God forbid?

No doubt that was once so. Much of the haredi community was anti-Zionist, openly opposing the founding of the state. But those days are long over. The haredim indeed have no ideological commitment to statehood or Jewish sovereignty, but they are, de facto, intensely patriotic and nationalistic. The younger generations, especially, who were raised as Israeli citizens, are deeply attached to it in their hearts - whatever their formal ideological stance. Certainly, they know what their fate would be should the state's survival be jeopardized.

This process is exemplified by Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, son of an ideological anti-Zionist, who in his youth organized haredi street demonstrations against Sabbath desecration. Now he is best known as the head of Zaka, the volunteer organization which aids terror victims and recovers the bodies of the dead. In 2003, Meshi-Zahav lit a torch at Israel's state commemoration of Independence Day, expressing his pride at the state's accomplishments and his service to it.

Which brings us to "left-leaning". Surveys consistently indicate that the most right-wing segment of the Israeli public is, by far, the haredi community. Not the national-religious, or even the settlers. They demonstrate the strongest support for diplomatic intransigence and the lowest level of trust in the Arabs. They are increasingly prominent in right-wing demonstrations, and never evident on the left. This political gap between the haredi public and its rabbinic leadership is not new, and the public will always back its rabbis' political decisions, but, like now, that support can be reluctant.

Dunner refers to "the pronouncement by Rabbi Elyashiv, the world's undisputed and most distinguished halachic expert, that it is halachically permitted to participate in the dismantling of Israeli hegemony over biblical Israel." Of course, no halachic expert is undisputed, not even the distinguished R' Elyashiv (whose ban on Indian wigs at the instigation of Dunner's father was hotly disputed by other halachicists).

But what pronouncement is Dunner referring to? R' Elyashiv allowed UTJ to join Sharon's coalition on a three-month trial basis, on the condition that it take no posts in the government. But he has never ruled on the disengagement plan itself. In fact, the decision to join the coalition was premised on the fact that Sharon has a majority for disengagement with or without UTJ's support. Given that, disengagement was a non-issue in the coalition decision, and Elyashiv focused on the party's other interests. Had the disengagement plan been dependent on UTJ's votes, it is far from clear they would have joined.

(It's very clever of Dunner to explain away UTJ's opposition to the Oslo Accords, as if it had nothing to do with their contents and thus does not affect his thesis that the haredim always support peace efforts!)

Dunner writes, strangely, that "the views of non-Zionist haredim are now congruent with the post-Zionism of Israel's majority". Israel's majority? Post-Zionism, the belief that Zionism has run its course and the Jewish state must now be replaced with a secular "state of all its citizens", does not now and never has been the stance of Israel's majority. It has at best won over the margins of Israel's intellectual elite, the heirs of the pre-state anti-Zionist left. Dunner must be spending too much time with the British Jewish academic left, which has always been uncomfortable with Zionism. Heck, in Britain, even Bnai Akiva is left-wing!

Finally, about the religious Zionists. I admit that religious Zionism has often overemphasized the importance of land at the expense of other vital priorities. But it is unfair to attribute their opposition to territorial concessions solely to a belief that "any withdrawal is a sacrilegious act that denies the messianic redemptive process."

Religious Zionist rabbis who have ruled against territorial compromise have argued from classical halachic sources, no less than the haredi rabbis who have supported it. You can accept or reject their readings of the sources, but you won't find them invoking "the messianic redemptive process" in support of their halachic positions. Dunner would know this if he had read their responsa.

Sephardic Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who in principle accepts the legitimacy of territorial compromise, has ruled strictly against the disengagement plan. Is he also motivated by "the utopian requirements of [his] warped religious views"? Does one have to agree with Dunner to be accorded respect as a "distinguished halachic expert"?

I confess that religious Zionism "blurred the lines between Judaism and Jewish nationalism." It did not create that theology, though. The theology that merged Jewish religion with Jewish nationhood was created with the birth of our nation:

Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.' (Genesis 12:1-3)

The Jewish people is a nation with a religion and a land. It has been so since its founding. How to balance those priorities is a challenge for all religious Jews. Denying the religious value of either the nation or the land, though, has no basis in Jewish sources. London will never be the promised land.


Soccer Dad said...

The notion that a halachic decision concerning a withdrawal is left wing or right wing is problematic. As I understand it Rav Schachter, shlita, originally said that whether or not to withdraw was a political decision, essentially because only the politicians would have enough information whether a withdrawal would save lives or not. Once the violence increased and it became clear that the "peace process" itself was "pikuach nefashot" Rav Schachter very publicly started opposing Oslo. He thus was described as having "moved to the right." He hadn't made any political move. He originally viewed the halachic implications of withdrawal as being outside of the realm of his experience to make a decision. Once the empirical evidence showed that people were dying as a result of the withdrawal he opposed it. As I understand R' Ovadia Yosef, his change of positions whether it was good to withdraw or not was similarly based on new information. I hadn't read Pini Dunner's essay, but thank you for explicating it.

Zman Biur said...

Yes, the notion that any halachic decision is left wing or right wing is problematic. I don't like to hear about "left-wing Orthodox" and "right-wing Orthodox" either; the terms are meaningless. You can't be left-wing or right-wing about religion (though you can be conservative or radical).

Regarding psak on land and peace, there are two main approaches. Approach one argues that pikuach nefesh takes precedence over the sanctity of the land, and thus any political decision which can be expected to save lives is not only legitimate but mandatory. This is the position conventionally taken by haredi posekim, including the Lubavitcher Rebbe and R' Ovadiah Yosef. (Though the Lubavitcher was a hawk and R' Ovadiah often a dove, their halachic reasoning was similar.)

Approach two argues that the precedence of pikuach nefesh doesn't apply regarding the sanctity of the land, since the halachic sources granting precedence to pikuach nefesh only relate to individual acts, not public political decisions. It also doesn't apply in cases of persecution. Furthermore, the mitzvah to settle the land applies in every age (according to Ramban), and if pikuach nefesh had precedence we would never be allowed to fight a war to defend land or property, only lives. Thus we must settle the land to the extent possible, even at risk to lives, and we certainly can't dismantle settlements.

So there are two grounds for opposing territorial withdrawals. According to the first approach, any withdrawal which would not save lives is forbidden due to the sanctity of the land. R' Ovadiah has ruled that since disengagement is a unilateral move, and no one argues that it will advance the cause of peace, and it may furthermore embolden our enemies, it is forbidden. According to the second approach, any voluntary withdrawal would be forbidden, even if it might advance the cause of peace.

It sounds like Rav Schachter basically holds like the first approach. Many religious Zionist rabbis in Israel hold like the second.