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Shas, Theology and Divine Dilemmas

13 March 2013

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

The Sephardi ultra-orthodox (haredi) political party Shas is facing a stark dilemma, one built into its existence since its genesis in 1984, but never truly put to the test. The party was born from a political will to break the left (Labor) vs. right (Likud) stalemate of the 1980s. The leading misnagid rabbi (to differentiate from Hasidic) and scholar at the time, Eliezer Shach, became convinced of the necessity of a Sephardi haredi representation in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Shach was a-Zionist, never supporting the modern political, secular Jewish State yet was a realist and willing to participate in the representative legislative framework should it prove beneficial to ultra-orthodox interests. Simultaneously he backed the development of Degel HaTorah, the purist Ashkenazi haredi faction which eventually joined forces with the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael and today comprise United Torah Judaism (UTJ) with 7 seats in the Knesset of 2013.

Sephardi scholarship and spirituality was and still is considered inferior by the Askenazis but the opportunity to expand the haredi influence in any way possible was not to be missed. Former chief Sephardi rabbi Ovadia Yosef, himself a student of the Ashkenazi misnagid haredi tradition despite being of Middle Eastern origin, became the spiritual mentor of the newly established Shas faction. Surprisingly for many, the political mentor was today's president Shimon Peres, who at the time was the Labor party chairman who served as prime minister from 1984-86 during the 1984-88 national unity government. Peres knew the left could not win an election if Sephardi votes were not be drawn away from the Likud. It was clear that religious and traditional Sephardi Jews would not vote for the secular Laborites but if a third party with its own interests was formed such a faction could be the balance between left and right. Labor could stand a chance of bringing them into a coalition as happened when Shas was a junior partner for a short time in the Rabin/Peres government of 1992 and again with Labor's Ehud Barak in 1999. Yet Shas, reflecting its constituency, always preferred a right wing religious arrangement when possible.

But other questions gnawed at Shas over the years. Rabbi Ovadia and others may have begun as Zionists close to 30 years ago but the party itself is more haredi and a-Zionist as it reflects the views of its hard line ultra-orthodox mentor, Rabbi Shach. Many religious and traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi (eastern) Jews see Shas in ethnic as well as religious terms thereby distancing themselves from the strongly Zionist national religious movement today represented by the Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi led by Naftali Benett) faction, once known as the National Religious Party.

Nowadays Shas with 11 seats in the Knesset, has a fairly split electorate between those who are national religious in overall outlook and others who are haredi and either do not truly support the State of Israel or do so half heartedly. On the surface are all those arguments concerning military exemptions for yeshiva students to study Torah and funding for a non-Zionist haredi educational system where history, science and English are not taught or only barely touch upon. Overwhelming expenses are incurred by the public when state stipends are distributed for adult males (today totaling over 50,000) to spend their lives studying holy texts outside of the job market and the costs for state housing subsidies for haredi families often totaling ten or more members are added up. UTJ will not budge on these issues while many in Shas would like to go more mainstream.

Furthermore there are the "politics of poverty" as the Rabbi Ovadia and his advisors use the party to gain government funding for haredi institutions leaving their participants as virtual hostages to the haredi lifestyle and fully dependent on Shas to physically survive. How many of those yeshiva students who entered the system would really like to get out and find a job? Any reasonable plan to aid them in obtaining a profession or skilled trade will thrust them into the more secular Israel where people are concerned about making a living and enjoying a life beyond the confines of the synagogue or bet midrash (house of learning). Should Shas constituents become materially independent they might find themselves with other interests besides those originally set out by Rabbi Shach or insisted upon by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and his Torah sages of today.

All of this brings us to a major theological issue. The national religious movement representing essentially modern orthodoxy blends together spiritual commitment, halacha (Jewish law) and a place in today's world. There is participation in the economy through work and spiritual achievement is gained by prayer and study. This is what the greatest ideologue of the movement Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook meant when speaking about the dual physical and spiritual redemption achieved through work and Torah. This was the road to a modern Jewish State serving as a framework for the ingathering of all Diaspora Jewry, ensuring Jewish existence and bringing about the coming of the Messiah who in turn will save Jewry and the world while ushering in universal peace and harmony.

Most haredi rabbis attacked Rabbi Kook at the time for aligning himself with the Zionist secularists whether of the left wing laborite types such as David Ben Gurion or coming from the right wing factions influenced by Zev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist movement (ancestors of today's Likud). For these rabbis living in the Land of Israel was acceptable but building anything but a theocratic Jewish State was either a waste of time or if one was anti-Zionist, an affront to God. A secular Jewish entity was out of the question. Jewish redemption would come about with the arrival of the Messiah and the holy community would continue suffering in the Diaspora until they followed Halacha as prescribed. The victory of Jewish law was to bring the Messianic End Time and theocracy, not a Jewish state led by secular Jews and ruled by secular laws.

Both Rabbi Kook's ideals and those of the haredi rabbis are embedded in Shas. Over the past 30 years the latter have gained the upper hand. Both the Jewish Home (national religious) party and the secular Yesh Atid are demanding virtually full haredi participation in the workforce and in the military. As opposed to UTJ Shas has many supporters participating in both yet its leadership holds fast to the traditional issue of Torah study for anyone who so desires as a sacred goal. Both parties are giving an ultimatum to Likud PM Benyamin Netanyahu to take them into the coalition without either of the haredi groups. Facing a lack of choice Netanyahu must either accept or face new elections. Any thought of the haredi and labor factions building a coalition with the Likud are out of the question.

Being more moderate than UTJ Shas is in a crisis. Sitting in the opposition they will need to fully embrace the haredi agenda and make demands for aiding the poor. Labor and the left will demand help for the poor in the form of jobs, not monies for yeshivas. The mainly left opposition will demand cuts in funding for the ultra-orthodox religious institutions no less than the government - Shas can only lose. Yet to join the coalition and accept the Jewish Home and Yesh Atid platform demands for equality in shouldering the burdens of state building will show them as capitulating. Either way they are on the verge of losing funding and part of their constituency come the next elections.

So the question is how to rebuild in the aftermath of the election results. Loyal to Rabbi Shach many believe Rabbi Ovadia will prefer sitting in the opposition. One must trust in God and Divine Will. They younger generation has much less loyalty to Shach's memory but will not defy the 93 year old Rabbi Ovadia. They know that fully moving into the workforce and serving in the army are the only true ways to integrate with the state and benefit from the material well being and lifestyle enjoyed by the middle class. One need not give up religious belief but rather concede the intolerable dependency of constantly awaiting state stipends and subsidies. In any case these will disappear. Shas is being challenged to adopt much of the national religious ideology. To be enfranchised in the Israel of 2013 Shas needs to fully embrace the ideals of Rabbi Kook and accept a coalition agreement attesting to such a shift. Not to do so will leave them marginalized, losing support and following UTJ into a dead end.

In essence Shas is facing a deal where it may negotiate a few changes, but really cannot refuse.