Alt+SHIFT: HaHardalim 

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | December 29, 2022

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau introduces a new TraditionOnline series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew.

Yair Sheleg, HaHardalim: Historiya, Ideologiya, Nokhahut (Israel Democracy Institute, 2020), 183 pp.

Yair Sheleg, a columnist for Makor Rishon, provides us with the history, ideology, and an analysis of a significant group within the Israeli Religious Zionist community. In the State’s early years, advanced Torah study was quite weak within our community’s sphere. Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav was extremely small, the Hesder system did not gain traction until the late-1960s, and there were few yeshiva high schools (Kfar HaRoeh, Midrashiyat Noam, and Netiv Meir being notable exceptions). Torah educators and community rabbis serving our community were predominantly Haredi. A number of young men, many of them from the Gahelet group, found a mentor in Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook and Merkaz HaRav underwent serious growth following the Six Day War. The later trauma of the Yom Kippur War led to the founding of Gush Emunim and a movement with grand political and religious aspirations arose. 

This movement strives for greater Torah observance and resembles the Haredi world in its negativity towards Western culture, its dramatic distinction between Jew and gentile, and in its acute sense of different gender roles. On the other hand, as opposed to Haredim, its adherents attribute immense religious significance to Medinat Yisrael. Differences between Hardal and Dati Leumi often manifest in issues of gender separation and female modesty. Hardal rabbinic voices prohibit co-ed youth groups and launched Ariel, a completely gender-segregated substitute for Bnei Akiva. They insist on separate education even in the early years of elementary school. Women cover all of their hair and do not wear wigs (in contrast to the Haredi world which completely accepts the latter).

Two schools of thought later emerged from the Hardal universe. When, in 1997, Merkaz HaRav decided to establish a teacher’s college, enabling their students to receive an educator’s license while continuing yeshiva study, R.Tzvi Tau and his ideological followers saw this as an intrusion of secular academia into the holiness of yeshiva. They split from Merkaz and founded an alternative yeshiva named Har HaMor. This break formalized the fissures already in place for fifteen years, since the passing of R.Tzvi Yehuda, which generated tensions about the rightful heir, whether R. Avraham Shapira or R. Tau would replace him.

R. Tau’s disciples started many other institutions, often collectively referred to as yeshivot ha-kav. These include the yeshiva in Mizpeh Ramon and one called Shavei Hevron. The two most influential pre-army mekhinot, Eli and Atzmona, follow this ideology, as does the Israeli program in Midreshet HaRova. 

Regarding certain issues, yeshivot ha-kav generated a moderate approach. Due to their embrace of Israeli Sovereignty and respect for State institutions (in contrast to mainstream ultra-Orthodox stance), they opposed IDF soldiers refusing orders at the time of the disengagement from Gaza. However, when it comes to particular cultural issues, this group toes a very hard line. They have been harshly critical of Dati Leumi rabbis of a more liberal bent. In recent years, they have waged a cultural war with the LGBT community in their attempt to preserve the traditional Jewish family unit. While the Haredi community puts more effort into maintaining its own institutions, the Hardali world is seriously invested in impacting on the State at large, especially in the realms of the army and education. 

The Hardal community has a disproportionate impact in Israel. Sheleg cites a study in which Religious Zionists divide into three self-identified categories: 64% mainstream Dati Leumi, 24% liberal religious, and 12% Hardal. One would think that the liberal camp should have twice as much communal influence—but reality does not play out this way. One factor is that many Hardal individuals go into the rabbinate and education. Mekhinot impact greatly on Israeli society as their students do full army service and often become officers. In stark contrast, Hesder Merkaz involves only half a year of army service. (For further analysis of the phenomenon of a more mainstream laity whose public rabbinic spokesmen are Hardali, see the recent writings by R. Michael Avraham.)

Rav Avraham Yitzhak Hakoיen Kook represents the spiritual figurehead of the Hardali world. Nonetheless, an immense gap emerges between his thought and that of R. Tau. R. Kook frequently writes about sanctifying the mundane while no one has attempted to draw a sharp distinction between holy and mundane more than R. Tau. The latter, and his followers, prefer to cite select R. Kook quotes for support, but the difference in emphasis cannot be denied. 

Sheleg makes a distinction between hardcore Hardalim and a broader range of adjacent Religious Zionists who offer partial support. The former are attracted to the feelings of religious authenticity and halakhic commitment of Hardal practice. The latter may not identify with much of Hardal teaching about secular studies or the role of women but they endorse nationalism, fear growing secularization, and respond to harsh attacks from the secular left. Some backing from this larger group also explains the Hardal community’s ability to influence beyond their numbers.     

I will close with two of Sheleg’s analytical contributions. It is not so easy to cut off outside influences and the Hardal world eventually created advanced institutions of women’s learning in order to compete with more liberal versions. Secondly, how concerned should we be about a growing rift between the Hardal community and the rest of Israel? Sheleg remains calm. Leaving yeshiva and entering the army and the workforce serve as moderating influences helping to close the gap between Hardal-educated Israelis and other Jews. Trends such as the growing number of religious women enlisting in the army may indicate the failure of Hardal public campaigns on this matter. Now that we stand a couple of years later and with the friction generated by the government currently forming, does Sheleg remain so sanguine? We will have to read his weekly column to find out.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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