Alt+SHIFT: R. Tau and the Culture Wars

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | January 5, 2023

Squished Mustard Package -Photographed on Hasselblad H3D2-39mb Camera

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 his new 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.

This installment of Alt+SHIFT will differ from our normal fare, which will mostly summarize interesting Hebrew material from a neutral standpoint while, this week’s post is decidedly partisan. The Hardal world (profiled last week) stands very much at the center of current Israeli discourse. Newly installed Cabinet Ministers Avi Maoz and Betzalel Smotrich identify as members of that segment of the Religious Zionist community. Two alleged victims publically accused R. Tzvi Tau, perhaps the Hardal world’s leading rabbinic figure, of sexual abuse. (It is not yet clar what action, if any, the police will take.) What follows was formulated before those accusations were made public. I do not summarize the works in question but rather select certain common themes running through this literature. For those seeking a more in-depth perspective on R. Tau’s ideological writings, we provide online links when available.

R. Tau and the Culture Wars

R. Tzvi Tau

R. Tzvi Tau expressed a strong stance in the Chaim Walder episode. In his opinion, “It is all a falsehood….R. Shmuel Eliyahu [who found Walder guilty] suffers from McCarthyism.”Despite numerous witnesses against Walder, R. Tau said that we are dealing with a plot to dirty the author’s name due to the criticism Walder levied against the Israeli Supreme Court. R. Tau claims that the same was done to former president Moshe Katzav. He brings no arguments or evidence establishing that Walder and Katzav were innocent.

R. Shmuel Eliyahu met with R. Tau to explain the case but R. Tau did not retract. If twenty women and girls testified before respectable judges, I assume that Walder was guilty (for the purposes of forming an opinion about him, albeit a court of law weighs other considerations). Even someone less convinced than I needs to explain how R. Tau could say with certainty that the allegations were false. Did he listen to the victims? Here, R. Tau said something horrendous. Victims suffering greatly from assault hear from a well-known Rabbi that they are lying to support the Supreme Court. Moreover, his words could dissuade the next group of victims from coming forward. How did we arrive at a place where a significant Rav could say things so incorrect and damaging?

In 1997, R. Tau and other rabbis left Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav in protest of the introduction of a teacher’s institute into the yeshiva. R. Tau and his colleagues published a booklet titled LeDerekh HaKodesh to explain their position. The booklet lacks all proportion. Bringing the teacher’s institute to a yeshiva is “like idolatry” (66). It also includes conspiracy theories. “The pushing for a more academic approach exhibited by educational and cultural administrators in Israel involves giving in to leftists who destroy all the holy foundations of our country” (84). Lack of proportion and presentation of the opposition as inherently wicked continued throughout the years.

In 2001, R. Tau put out a pamphlet titled Tzaddik BeEmunato Yihye on the attitude to Biblical criticism, in which he comes out against the approach to Tanakh study found in the teacher’s institutes in Yeshivot Hesder. R. Tau writes: “Anyone who studies or teaches in these places is poisoned and toxic” (39). “It is completely forbidden to study in any of these places,” “resistance calls for literal martyrdom” (49). The language is ridiculously exaggerated.

Of course, the story includes villains and here they are Europeans and Christians trying to undermine our rights to the Land of Israel. “To get rid of dedication for the Land of Israel…one needs to lower the Bible’s value in the community’s eyes” (38). “The European Union and Christianity are involved in this entire process…One must delegitimize the Bible” (49-50). We would have thought that the debate about Tanakh study between Machon Herzog (at Har Etzion) and Yeshivot HaKav is a legitimate hashkafic debate—but R. Tau offers a much darker understanding. 

His HaOmetz LeAtzmaut (2019) addresses issues of sexuality and family, especially as they have come under attack in contemporary society. Here too, the work portrays the other side as fully evil. “The people leading this campaign are not idealists like the early secular Zionists….we are talking about scoundrels and empty individuals, lacking responsibility and a minimum of culture” (23). Exaggeration continues. R. Tau calls for a “popular rebellion” (23). “They are trying to legitimize adultery and incest. Bestiality is already under consideration and we start to hear voices normalizing pedophilia” (19). It is simple slander to declare that the Israeli left harbors a serious movement in favor of bestiality or pedophilia.

In this essay, R. Tau distinguishes between the secularists in R. Kook’s era and the contemporary left. R. Kook identified many merits among the former but, according to R. Tau, the latter are fully negative. I think R. Kook would not struggle to find positive qualities in secular Jews serving in the Israeli army, protecting Am Yisrael, or contributing to society in other ways. R. Tau paints with a broad brush and faults them with “erasing the distinction between people and animals” (12). While we negate the equation between man and beast, we should also respect the wish to minimize animal pain. R. Kook would be proud of Tel Aviv being full of vegans and vegetarians who recoil from the suffering inflicted on animals in today’s food factories. 

We can find some positive aspects in new approaches to homosexuals. R. Tau once referred to homosexuality as “the ugliest deviance” and said that homosexuals play with their anus all day so that the house smells from it” (Yair Ettinger, Frumim, 167). It is odd that a Rav should talk in such as coarse fashion and they indeed removed this sentence from the second edition. We cannot permit a biblical prohibition but we must acknowledge the great difficulties of people with same-sex attraction struggling to remain part of the religious community. Clearly, one should speak to them with great compassion and in a much more respectful fashion. 

R. Tau remains consistent through all the debates. Sinister people without redeeming qualities attempt to destroy Jewish values. Conspiracy theories lead to exaggerated rhetoric. Every story receives an identical interpretation and he does not differentiate between a teacher’s institute, biblical interpretation, the question of homosexuality, and the Walder episode. However, the world is not the black-and-white place R. Tau describes and we are not in a war between “the children of light” and the “children of darkness.” This is not only a mistake in understanding the situation; it is a danger to our very future. When each side thinks it has a monopoly on truth and the opposition is fully evil, no chance exists for working together. One can see the impact of his approach on his sphere of influence. How ironic that those who talk all the time about Klal Yisrael are those endangering the crucial unity of Am Yisrael.

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


Leave a Reply