|R' Shalom Cohen, head of the Shas Moetzas Chachmei HaTorah (YWN)|
I thought of these lines as I reflect on two events that happened in Israel last week. One is the election of Dr. Aliza Bloch, - a Dati (religious but not Charedi) woman - as the new mayor of Bet Shemesh. A win she achieved with the help of a significant number of Charedi voters. The other is perhaps even more surprising. From the New York Times:
In Haifa, one of the leading Haredi parties, Degel HaTorah, or Flag of the Torah — representing the so-called Lithuanian wing of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox — broke with the others and endorsed a nonreligious woman, Einat Kalisch Rotem, 48, who rolled to victory over a longtime incumbent to become the first woman elected as mayor of Israel’s third-largest city.
Now it is true that Haifa is perhaps the most a secular city in all of Israel Certainly of that size. I do not believe the incumbent was any more religious than the new mayor-elect. Which makes it a bit surprising that Degel HaTorah, The Yeshiva world’s political arm bothered to endorse anybody there. But they did. And - surprise! – it was a secular woman. And they even congratulated the winner:
Even more groundbreaking, Degel HaTorah leaders celebrated and even bragged about Ms. Rotem’s victory in public. One of the party’s elected lawmakers, Moshe Gafni, placed a fawning congratulatory call to her — “Now you can do everything you think should be done,” he said. “We are with you” — and then posted a videotape of the call online. And when the new mayor-elect showed up at one of the sect’s synagogues late that night, hundreds of young yeshiva students sang and danced around her as if she were a renowned Torah scholar.
To say that I am shocked by all of this would be an understatement of immense magnitude. Yeshiva students singing and dancing around a secular woman?! Because she won an election?!
I have no clue about the politics behind this. But my guess is that her policies in some way benefit the Charedi wolrd. (Although it’s hard to see how the agenda of the secular mayor of Haifa could ever do that.)
What makes this interesting is the fact that – as the Times notes - women in the Charedi world are never endorsed for a leadership position of any kind. Much less as the mayor of a major city. In fact Charedi parties forbade women from even becoming members until a recent ruling by the courts that said it was discriminatory to do so and therefore illegal. The parties removed that provision. But as of now there has been no attempt by a Charedi party to invite women into it. Much less to serve as a member of the Knesset.
To illustrate just how much opposition there is to women serving in any leadership capacity - there was an unsigned poster circulated in Bet Shemesh just before the election. It said in the strongest possible terms - something to the effect that it is against the Torah to vote for a woman and those who do will be put into virtual Cherem. Meaning that they would be completely ostracized from all communal activity such as being counter for a Minyan or being called to the Torah. In other words a public shunning would be in effect for those that voted for Dr. Bloch.
In the case of Dr. Bloch this warning fell on deaf ears in much of the Charedi community. They voted for Aliza Bloch anyway. And in the case of a woman, Einat Rotem an endorsement by Charedi politicians is tantamount to an endorsement by their rabbinic leaders (whom they refer to as ‘the Gedolim’ and consider their pronouncements to be Daas Torah.) The same leaders that will probably never allow a woman to be seated in the Keneset as a party member.
What seems to be happening in one Bet Shemesh whose Charedi citizens comprise a majority of its population is a minor revolution. The election of Dr. Bloch precipitated an angry reaction by a Sephardi rabbinic leader. From YWN:
Rav (Sholom) Cohen addressed claims of disapproval against (current Charedi mayor, Moshe) Abutbul from within the Chareidi camp: “They say that Moshe Abutbul did not take care of garbage collection and cleaning the streets. Phoeey (slang) on you! [טפו עליכם!]”
“What about the Torah related things that he did? Is there more cleanliness in the world than that? In Olam Habaah, they [Chareidi voters for Bloch] will be put into clean bathrooms. There, they will have clean bathrooms…”
“How do Yerei Shomayim who put on Tefillin in the morning not know how to weigh between this one (candidate) or this one? It is an embarrassment and a disgrace”, added Rav Cohen.
Is it possible that ‘Daas Torah’ as it has existed til now in Israel has lost its luster? ...that it is no longer the powerhouse it once was?
I recall the last mayoral election in Bet Shemesh. There was the same kind of pressure from Daas Torah then as there was this time. Their rabbinic leaders said at the time that it was a Chilul HaShem not to vote for the religious (Charedi) candidate. Charedim were all in. They campaigned hard for him and disparaged those that supported the opposing candidate.
But this time was different. The loss of the current Charedi mayor, Moshe Abutbul seems to have been taken in stride even by those that supported him. One fellow I spoke to casually who in the last election was all fired up in support of Abutbul said ‘I guess people just don’t like being told who to vote for’.
I believe that shows a break from their Daas Torah. Until now if Daas Torah told the Charedi community that they had to vote for someone, they did. Not doing so was considered not listening to the Gedolim who pronouncements based on their vast Torah knowledge was seen as the closest thing to what God wanted as was humanly possible. And thus their opinion on all matters outweighed anyone else’s.
I wonder how far this break will go. I have always hoped for a grass roots uprising that would change the way things work in this world. I don’t know if we are there yet. But maybe this is it. We may just be witnessing the beginning of the winds of change. Daas Torah will not be eliminated as a factor. Nor should it be. We need to know what the ‘wisdom of the Torah’ is on all matters. Religious leaders steeped in Torah are the best ones to give us that information.
But they are human and subject to error. Perhaps this break by Charedi voters was a wake up call about whether the views of the past actually were the wisdom of the Torah. Maybe the Charedi leadership in Israel will now realize that some of their views of were in error. Maybe – just maybe they will now have a new perspective that will enable their people to live better lives while still