Yedi'ot Ahronot, August 15, 1997
Israeli religious life and education is becoming increasingly Ultra-Orthodox
and fanatical :
an interview with Professor Yehuda Friedlander:
The Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox campaign
against Reform and Conservative Jews has been fierce. Nevertheless, the
Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox are not a monolithic camp of fanatics. There is
a wide range of leaders, who criticize this fanatical attitude, including many
who support religious pluralism in Israel.
One, Professor Yehuda Friedlander, gave his opinion on aspects of the
religious conflict in Israel. Friedlander, Rector of Bar-Ilan University, grew up
as a child in an Ultra-Orthodox community in Tel Aviv. In an interview in the
Hebrew daily Yedi'ot Ahronot, he describes with humor the radical trends
among the Ultra-Orthodox, but expresses his fear that an unbridgeable gap is
endangering the Israeli Jewish society.
Bar-Ilan University is the only Jewish Orthodox university in Israel. It has
been under fierce criticism for educating ultra-fanatics after one of its
students, Yig'al Amir, assassinated the late prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, on
November 4, 1995.
In the week that Reform Jews celebrated the confirmation of the appointment
of Professor Joyce Brenner to the Religious Council of Natanya, in the week
that Haredim looked with delight upon the police, who forcefully expelled
Conservative worshippers from the Kotel, and secular Israelis enjoyed Tisha
B'Av with theaters and restaurants open without interruption -- Professor
Yehuda Friedlander, 58, Rector of Bar-Ilan University, said that he fears
"Since the murder of Rabin, anything is possible in this country. Yigal
the demon out of the bottle. At first they threw sacks of shit in the streets of
Bar-Ilan [an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem], now they do it
next to the Kotel. If Ovadiah Yosef loses control, our worst nightmares will
come to fruition."
Professor Friedlander has four sons and a daughter. The professor of
Hebrew Literature wears a large knitted kippah and has a long beard. His
oldest is 36, and the youngest 12, all of them students and graduates of
religious-Zionist education. He is troubled that from child to child the
educational system has become increasingly ultra-Orthodox.
"When I was a small boy in Tel-Aviv in the 40's, I played with girls, wedding
celebrations were mixed, and I even bathed in the sea at a regular (not
sex-segregated) beach. The Hazon Ish, who was the admired spiritual leader
of the Haredim in those years, tested me there, on the beach, in Tanakh.
Today, the paranoia of separation between the sexes is so great, that soon
the Haredim will use technology in the service of halacha to patent a
mechitzah for the womb of a pregnant woman carrying male and female
"There is strict attention paid to superficial outward behavior, such as
forbidding girls to walk without socks. At my daughter's graduation, when the
girls' choir sang, the other fathers and I were not permitted to go, only the
mothers. What do they think, that my evil inclination is so great, that the
voices of my daughter and her friends in song is like a sex organ and will
cause me to lose my self-control? Today there are strict rules concerning skirt
lengths and the height of skirt slits. A teacher stands at the gate of the school,
eyes searching for the length of his students' legs, measuring who has slits that
are too high, and sends her home."
You are not speaking of Haredi educational institutions, like "Beit
Yakov," but about the religious Zionist institutions.
"To my great displeasure. Today, a girl in the national religious camp
not willing to sign that she will not serve in the army will not be accepted into
the [Orthodox] Horev High School in Jerusalem. Because the level there is so
good, many girls are forced to lie, and after their exams, they join the army.
My wife did this and served in Nahal, but when her younger sister applied,
they refused her, because the family already had a 'bad record.'"
"At the boys' elementary school of Horev, the principal refused to let
and other children participate in the science day camp for youth at the
Hebrew University. Because I am an academic, he clenched his teeth and
signed, because he knew I wouldn't acquiesce."
"The religious Zionist movement does not produce enough teachers for its
institutions, and is forced to hire Haredi teachers. These Haredi teachers
make our education more fanatical, and are like a Trojan Horse breaking us
apart from the inside."
Professor Friedlander, who was the chair of the Department of Hebrew
Literature and Comparative Literature at Bar-Ilan University, is worried by
the fact that the religious educational system is becoming more Haredi. "The
Department of Religious Education at the Ministry of Education is insuring
that its curriculum will be different from that of the secular schools. Even
when we are speaking about teaching English. One will teach Macbeth -- and
the other, only to emphasize their difference, Julius Caesar. In one of the
meetings I attended, one of the educators said, that even though Warsaw is
the capitol of Poland, Gur is a more important city, and we should highlight
her more on the map of Europe. I did not restrain myself, and I said, the head
and the heart are two essential organs of the body, but from a Jewish
perspective, circumcision is more important. So, perhaps, in the anatomical
representation of the male body, we should highlight that organ more?'
"Later, he demanded to remove from the reading list every book that had
been made into a movie. I requested instructions in writing from him, if he
was also thinking about removing the Tanakh from the curriculum, given the
movie "Ten Commandments."
A File Overflowing With Nonsense
Professor Friedlander remembers from his childhood and his youth that he
wore shorts, even when he went up for an aliyah to the Torah, but now the
educational institutions only allow his sons to wear long pants, from fear of
"One hundred years ago, they never entered your soul. Now they interfere
into the smallest of details, even the most intimate ones. I glanced at an
announcement hanging at one of the yeshivas, that warned the boys to clean
their rectum well with water and not just with paper, because if they don't, it
will 'hinder their prayer.' Mothers are requested 'to teach their sons from a
young age not to hold their penis when they urinate, as if it would flood the
world, and that they should teach a boy when he is young, that when he goes
to bed, he should lie on one side and not with his face pointing up or down."
"Engaging in intimate details day in and day out, not only does not advance
modesty, but turns it into a pervert."
Didn't Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef already go back and rule that it is
forbidden for married women to wear wigs?
"Excessive ultra-Orthodoxy is a sign of crisis. Like in the army, if a
commander has to repeat a command hundred times, it is a sign that his
authority has weakened. Today there is a sado-masochistic desire to add
stricter obligations, and I have a file overflowing with nonsense. For example,
there is a halachic ruling that forbids shaving with an electric razor, from fear
of pulling out beard hairs by their root, something against Halacha. Jews
have been using electric razors for forty years, and suddenly they discovered
their danger? I know that in the end, someone will get rich off this ruling. Only
one electric razor will be certified kosher by the rabbis, and thousands of
yeshiva students will run out to buy it."
"Three weeks ago, I went into a hardware store and was astounded to hear
an Orthodox man asking the merchant if he had kosher nails for putting up a
mezuzah. If he ate meat, and grasped the nail in his teeth before nailing it into
the doorpost, he would not want to commit a sin with a milkhic nail. So great
is the ignorance.
The worst are the newly religious. On the radio program 'Questions and
Answers,' one of them asked the honored rabbis if he was permitted to wrap
tefillin on his arm that was tattooed with a naked woman."
Why do the Haredim feel threatened? Aren't more secular Jews
becoming religious than religious Jews breaking out of the fence?
"In Israel in 1997 there are more yeshiva students than in all the communities
in Europe on the eve of W.W.II, and for this the Haredim can thank David
Ben-Gurion. In the Diaspora, the communities financed the yeshivot by
themselves, and therefore, only the top students were admitted after passing
"Yeshivot in Israel, that follow the prestigious yeshivot in the Diaspora,
an undeserved reputation. Their directors told me explicitly, 'we take anyone,
even if he is stupid, in order to save him from the claws of the army.'"
"The result is that the level of learning decreased greatly. A new phenomenon
has been born in Judaism: the eternal yeshiva student. Usually they learned at
a yeshiva until marriage, and as soon as a man married and established a
family, he had to support his wife and children. [Now they continue studying
after marriage.] And who permits this? The state treasury, that finances the
yeshivot, with a larger budget than is given to higher education. This is how
yeshivot have turned into asylums for freeloaders."
Copies of "Mein Kampf"
"The level of the Rabbinate has also dropped. I was shocked when I heard
that on kibbutz Hafetz Chaim they appointed a rabbi for the swimming pool.
What is he going to check there, the kashrut of the diving board? Once, the
rabbis were teachers and judges. Today there is a new generation. As with
the matriculation exams, there are rabbis certified for 3 units [the lowest level
of exams] and for 5 units [the highest level]. There are more rabbis of the first
type, that deal only with rituals, they marry and bury, but they cannot be
judges and pass halachic rulings."
"Today, the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik from twenty years ago are
becoming a reality: "the Haredim among us, many of them do not truly fear
God, but only superficially. Therefore, our we lose in the intellectual struggle"
"Even at Bar-Ilan University, which has 15,000 students, one feels this
excessive Ultra-Orthodoxy. In the beginning of the 60's, 90% of the students
were religious, and only 10% were secular. Today, in some departments,
60% are secular. There are many knitted kippah wearers in law school,
business administration and computers, but in sociology, literature and
psychology, the majority are secular, because these are 'dangerous'
professions, that which post moral and religious questions."
"Many Haredi groups have stopped sending their children to Bar-Ilan in
recent years. Religious Zionism threatens them more than anything, and they
are afraid to study at a university of gentiles. There are women who approach
us, after listening to lectures, complaining that they are forced to listen to
words of heresy. Analytical thinking has gone out the window, students are
accustomed to preaching, not to thinking."
What do you think of the law being considered in the Knesset
forbidding the owning of the New Testament?
"If the Israeli parliament passes such a draconian law, perhaps I will
choice but to pack my bags and find another place to live. We are an open
institution, in our library we also have "Mein Kampf," because history
students must know this text."
"It is impossible to learn history, to engage in the study of Hebrew and
history of the nation of Israel without quoting the New Testament. Rabbis and
great leaders of Israel, like the Hatam Sofer, were mistaken when then said
that the expression "there is no prophet in his own city" is a rabbinic saying. I
have news for them. There is no trace of it in our sages' sayings. It is a direct
quote from the New Testament. Maybe now they will be shaken up and will
stop using it. In a place where they ban books, the next step is to burn them,
and from there, the road to burning people is short."
The rise in the standard of living, according to Friedlander, contributes
increase of Ultra-Orthodoxy. "The Halacha set its norm according to the
poor, while today's Ultra-Orthodox Jewry set their standards according to
the rich. For example, today one is expected to beautify mitzvot and pay
$200 for an etrog for Sukkot, and people look down and despise, and
consider the person a Jew of lower rank, if he buys one for only 50 shekels
($12). The standard of living of the Ultra-Orthodox has risen as a result of
the fortunes that the state puts in their pockets. he beautifying of mitzvot is
impossible for many families who collapse under its weight. This materialism
shows that the Ultra-Orthodox suffer from the same defects as the secular.
They do not know from modesty. They have no reason to demonstrate
Friedlander was appointed rector after Amir pulled the trigger. "There
defect in our admission criteria if a person such as Amir was admitted. Our
university is only for those ready for critical thinking. I would have been
happy if there had been a way to test for this quality among applicants for an
"Amir came from a reasonable background but the mystical education he
absorbed was disastrous. Mystical messianism, one of the characteristics of
the new ultra-orthodoxy, has an evil root. Halacha was always based on the
rational. But today, Rabbi Kedouri takes over. The Kabbalah has become
mainstream and so has the ruling that permits the killing of those who do not
act in accordance with the Halacha. The seeds for Rabin's assassination
were sown when stones and trees became more sacred than life. When
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef says that Shulamit Aloni may not live to see the year's
end, the way to pulling a gun is short."
Commenting on Tisha B'Av, and the fact that in Tel-Aviv and other cities
places of entertainment were open, Friedlander said, "I can understand that
some are fed up, we have too many days of mourning. We have become a
people that lives in cemeteries. Maybe it would have been better if Tisha
B'Av were declared a national day of mourning, on which we remember all of
our tragedies, from the destruction of The Temple until today."
"Tisha B'Av is a day of fast for me, but I don't have the right to impose
others, not in their home, and not in public where they dine and seek
entertainment. I don't have cable, but I heard that they showed a porno
movie. I don't think that on Tisha B'Av they have to darken the screen or
broadcast only programs on the destruction of The Temple. I don't like the
total imposition of religion. Also on Independence Day, when we dedicate so
many programs to the day that the public grows sick of them. It is easier to
deepen awareness when it comes in smaller doses. An overdose causes
Friedlander thinks that the conversion bill is a disaster. He supports
participation of women on the religious councils. In mixed cities of Jews and
Arabs, like Haifa and Acco, Muslims and Christians have the right to
participate in the religious councils, because they also have a need for
religious services. Friedlander is against the idea that the Western Wall be
treated as a synagogue, and supports designating a place for men and women
to pray in a mixed group.
In the deepening gap between the Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews there
never be understanding. It is only the political needs that keeps things quiet on
the surface. "According to the Ultra-Orthodox, the ruling that 'the law of the
land is the law,' is not applicable to Israel. The Jew who lives in Brooklyn is
willing to live according to the laws of the United States because they are
laws of the gentiles. When he comes to Israel, he sees himself exempt from
obeying laws that Jews have legislated. According to their law, all Israel is
responsible for one another, and therefore, they consider themselves our
guardian. As soon as you, the secular Jew, drinks milk after eating meat, you
make him impure as well, as if you poisoned him. In the name of this mutual
responsibility, the Ultra-Orthodox also use violent means to impose their way
of life on us and they are not going to stop."
by Yehuda Koren