Alt+SHIFT: Prumim

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | August 24, 2023

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 continues this Tradition Online 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. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Yair Ettinger, Prumim: Ha-Mahlokot ha-Mefatzlot et ha-Tziyonut ha-Datit (Dvir, 2019), 304 pp.

[UPDATE: This book has now been released in English as Frayed (Maggid Books)]

Journalist Yair Ettinger’s recent book, Prumim, provides a window into many debates raging in today’s Dati Leumi world, including partnership minyanim, ascending the Temple Mount, LGBT issues, attitude to the Chief Rabbinate, and women enlisting in the army. Readers of TRADITION will be particularly interested in the book’s analysis of parallel phenomena in American Modern Orthodoxy—insights Ettinger gained from a period living in New York a few years ago.

Ettinger points out how trends in the observant community can bubble up from below. In the 1970s, almost no religious women went to the army and few religious Jews went up on the Temple Mount. Regarding the former, R. Ovadia Yosef and others even objected to sherut leumi. No well-regarded rabbi initiated a sweeping change, yet both issues have shifted dramatically over time. Now, more than a quarter of religious young women draft and midrashot have started catering to such students. In both cases, the author surveys critics who question the motivations of the practitioners (attitudes toward visiting Har Ha-Bayit are likely motivated by politics as much as faith, although the two are sometimes difficult to separate) but the criticism has not lessened enthusiasm. Another example of grass-roots change was Dr. Daniel Rosenak, an Orthodox ob-gyn, calling for married women to drop the practice of counting seven “clean days” as part of the process leading to mikveh immersion. In this case, while it is difficult to know what goes on behind closed doors, it seems that Rosenak’s campaign has garnered little traction.

In a related vein, Ettinger notes a loss of faith in rabbinic authority, and points to the litany of sex scandals involving rabbis over the last two decades or so, among other causes. We have been witness to prominent rabbis being found guilty of abuse, sexual and otherwise (he offers profiles of  Moti Elon and Ezra Sheinberg, among others) while other rabbis saw their reputations tarnished for showing support for abusers (the case of R. Haim Druckman is offered). In tracing trends in the community at large, Ettinger suggests that those skeptical about rabbis, or whose deference to rabbinic authority has eroded, will feel more freedom to create their own initiatives. Concurrently, he shows how  rabbis, such as Chaim Navon, Avraham Stav, and Amnon Bazak, have gained influence through their savvy use of new media, gaining followers among those no longer in the orbits of more conventional rabbinic models.

Beyond the stature of rabbis in general, much of the Dati Leumi world has lost trust in the Chief Rabbinate as an institution in specific. The last three Ashkenazi chief rabbis came from the Haredi world and one, R. Yona Metzger, went to prison for corruption. He attained the position because R. Yosef Shalom Elyashav, leader of the Haredi community, supported his candidacy over that of R. Yaakov Ariel. A dayan named R. Avraham Sherman invalidated conversions overseen by R. Druckman. All of this helped generate various attempts to circumvent the Chief Rabbinate in the realms of kashrut supervision, marriages, and conversion.

Women learning Talmud and partnership minyanim were driven by American olim in Israel. As the Israeli Orthodox scene lacks the fear of Conservative Judaism, leading to vigilance on the leftward front in America, perhaps the combination of liberal American trends in a less anxious environment allowed these initiatives to find fertile ground in Israel (and then to be transplanted later back to the United States). This analysis is interesting, but Ettinger spent his American sojourn among the more liberal Modern Orthodox enclaves of Manhattan and Riverdale—the degree to which his insights can be successfully extrapolated to other segments of American Orthodoxy is questionable.

Ettinger points out that we cannot draw a simple line between right and left because people are more complex than that—and in Israel perhaps most of all. Rabbanit Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel and Dr. Michal Tikochinsky are well-known advocates for women’s learning—and both live in Nof Ayalon, a rather conservative yishuv. Rabbanit Idit Bartuv received semikha while living in Talmon, a settlement in the Shomron, and actively participating in Nashim Lema’an Ha-Mikdash. R. Nachum Rabinovich was politically conservative, liberal in many areas of psak, and ardently opposed older single women using artificial insemination to conceive children.

The emergence of the Hardali world looms large. Whereas Haredim mostly want to protect and preserve their own communities, Hardalim want to influence the public square. Thus, it is only the former that wage cultural war on the Pride Parade. LGBT issues in particular stir up Hardali wrath. R. Shlomo Aviner continues to support reparative therapy and R. Zvi Tau refers to homosexuality as “the ugliest deviation.” Since the book was published, we have also seen R. Tzvi Kustiner, Rosh Yeshiva at Mitzpe Ramon, refer to gays as wicked and call out “Homos, go home.” In addition, Hardalim have organized campaigns against various individuals in the Education Ministry and banned the written works of more liberal rabbis (such as Rabbis Yoel Bin-Nun and Yuval Cherlow).

Ettinger has an ear for witty quotations. Rabbanit Leah Sarna notes how opposition to women rabbis stems not just from halakhic argumentation but from aesthetic features as well. Rabbis have beards and do not wear dresses, she observed. Regarding the ubiquitous fear of the “slippery slope” when it comes to women’s issues, Rachelle Sprecher Fraenkel said that “the slope is fully here but it is an ascent up the mountain.”

The work focuses less on the American scene though it does offer some quality observations. Every group has its ideological red lines where tolerance breaks down. Machon Hadar is not pluralistically open to varying views when it comes to egalitarianism. Ettinger mentions non-Zionist Hadar students who recite tahanun on Yom Ha’atzmaut and it will be interesting to see how such trends play out among liberal observant American Jews.

Ettinger’s Prumim (a play on “frum” and the Hebrew word for “frayed”), whose subtitle might be translated as “The Debates Splintering Religious Zionism,” makes a solid contribution to our attempt to understand our community, its disputes, and the dynamics of change.

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

Leave a Reply