Yedidia Stern
Al-Monitor (Opinion)
November 1, 2012 - 12:00am

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, among the most important of the Zionist movement's rabbis, has determined that women are forbidden from being elected to the Knesset because of modesty restrictions. In his opinion, the kind of public exposure that is involved in political positions is opposed to the Jewish concept of “all the glory of the daughter of a king is internal."

We could, naturally, categorize the rabbi’s statement as disconnected from the Israeli reality. Religious women run for election in several parties, religious and non-religious. None of them are likely to retract their candidacy due to the rabbi’s ruling, but his words should not be discounted. They represent and exemplify the great struggle over the soul of religious Zionism and its future. This sector is torn between opposing trends, both of which are powerful and aggressive — integrating into general society, and withdrawing from that society into seclusion. 


The conflict is an intra-sectoral one, but its ramifications will affect all of Israeli society. This is because throughout recent decades, religious Zionism has been an ideologically lively and significant sector, involved in all the major issues of the day. The knit kipot and colorful scarves of Zionists are at the center of Israeli controversy regarding the identity of the state, with all its ramifications. They have long since abandoned the role of Kashrut supervisor (for kosher processes) and exchanged it — for good, but sometimes for bad — with the proud self-identification of revolutionaries destined to lead the nation.


The integration trend is salient: Many religious Zionists surround the prime minister in the “aquarium.” The highest levels of the legal system are densely staffed by Bnei Akiva (religious Zionist youth movement) graduates. Nobel prize winners, IDF generals, heads of the economy, literary and cinema stars, media talents — all these develop non-sectoral careers but view their religious Zionist identities as routine. 


But who educates their children? More and more religious Zionist schools follow the segregationist world-view, called "Charedi-Zionist." Charismatic rabbis who lead the religious Zionist youth champion seclusion from Israeli society because they perceive spiritual dangers in the liberal world in which the society lives. Religious school networks, especially the elite schools that are private , not affiliated with the state school networks, serve as agents of moderate ultra-Orthodoxy while abandoning the classic values of religious Zionism.


The struggle between the opposing trends of integration and segregation in religious Zionism is well exemplified in Rabbi Aviner’s most recent ruling. His modesty discourse demonstrates the Charedi-Zionist movement's rejection of a basic value accepted in the general Israeli society as well as in religious Zionism: gender equality. Yes, the Charedi-Zionist movement has achieved noticeable successes in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and in an important percentage of religious schools.


A separation wall has been erected between the genders. Women’s military service is perceived as inappropriate. Women’s singing has become such an important issue, that some religious soldiers consider refusing to obey a military order because of it. The dress code of women in the sector has become a burning issue, in which numerous stringencies compete with one another. Indeed, the maturation of the cultural process of separation between the genders may cause the next generation of religious Zionist women to eschew any aspirations of serving as Knesset members altogether, like their ultra-Orthodox sisters.


Not all religious Zionist rabbis have ultra-Orthodox leanings, and not all religious Jews accept rabbinical authority in issues not directly connected to Jewish religious law. The quiet majority of the sector must consolidate an alternate religious-spiritual position to that of the Charedi-Zionist stance. The struggle over the lifestyle of the next generation is ongoing. Religious parents who choose their children’s educational institutions must ask themselves if their own lifestyles are viewed as "kosher" by their children’s educators. The passivity of the majority today is likely to cause half of the sector — the women — to be forced to choose between a religious life, or a full one.


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