| A Divided Soul
Date: December 12, 1997
Publication: Jerusalem Post
Author: Herb Keinon
Jerusalem Post The enormous study hall at Jerusalems
Mercaz Harav yeshiva has for years been a powerful and compelling
sight on two particular days of celebration: Simhat Torah
and Jerusalem Day. On these holidays, hundreds of students,
either holding hands or linked shoulder to shoulder, dance
around and around in a series of plodding circles. Hour
after hour, they methodically, hypnotically, put one foot
in, one foot out, while they sing in husky voices songs
of praise to the Lord and the Land of Israel. It has always
been an impressive display of spirituality, devotion and
But this year, a new, discordant note has come out of the
yeshiva, which is commonly referred to as the flagship of
the national-religious movement. The spirituality and devotion
are still there, to be sure. But the unity has been shattered.
Last month, Mercaz Harav split in two.
That something like this could happen at Mercaz,
where the rabbis always preached unity and love of Israel,
is incredible, says one former student. It is
Mercaz Harav, founded in 1924 by Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen
Kook, has for the last three decades occupied a role in
the national-religious camp that extends far beyond its
500 yeshiva students and 200 kollel members.
Mercaz is more than a yeshiva. It has become synonymous
with the teachings of Kook, the first pre-state chief rabbi;
with religious nationalism; with Gush Emunim; with messianic
Zionism. The whole educational system of the national-religious
camp, from elementary schools to girls high schools
to hesder yeshivot, is full of educators who attended Mercaz
or who look to it for spiritual guidance.
Because of the lofty position the yeshiva has occupied
in the national- religious camp, almost as a seat of halachic
and spiritual authority, the split will likely have ramifications
that will be felt far beyond it. The yeshiva is politically
right-wing, and religiously conservative, so any weakening
of its authority may mean that more politically moderate
and religiously liberal voices will be heard in the national-
It is ironic, therefore, that the split took place over
an issue that to outsiders seems minor, even trivial: The
possible establishment at the yeshiva of an Education Ministry-sponsored
For the last 15 years, various hesder yeshivot have established
teachers institutes to receive additional ministry
funding and to provide students with something practical
after many years of study. (Mercaz Harav is not a hesder
yeshiva, and the students there generally do a much- shortened
stint in the IDF when they are well into their twenties.)
The students enrolled in the teachers institutes
get credit for the Talmud, philosophy and Bible classes
they they take at yeshiva, and - after taking a number of
pedagogic, English and math classes elsewhere - receive
A few months ago, word spread that the head of Mercaz Harav,
former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira, was interested in setting
up such an institute at Mercaz. This led to the following
letter, signed by six leading rabbis at the yeshiva, being
posted at the entrance to Mercaz: We believe that
the establishment of the teachers institute inside
the yeshiva lessens its reputation and damages the strength
of Torah, which cannot join a spiritual partnership with
any other side.
The letter stated that a partnership with the Education
Ministry would be akin to idol worship, desecration
of Gods name and, at the very least, cooperation with
The extremely harsh tone of the clarification
elicited an equally harsh response from Shapira. Until the
six rabbis apologized, he decreed, they were suspended from
the yeshiva. This group of rabbis included Rabbi Zvi Tau,
who many view as the spiritual heir to Avraham Kooks
son, Zvi Yehuda Kook, and - along with Shapira - the leading
personality at the yeshiva since Zvi Yehudas death
in 1982. Shapira chastised the men for abrogating clear
halachic guidelines against disputing ones rabbi,
arguing with him, or setting up a competing yeshiva.
Tau and the others refused to apologize. Instead, they
broke away and set up a yeshiva in a synagogue that housed
a dwindling minyan in Jerusalems Kiryat Menahem neighborhood,
some 15 minutes drive way from the mother yeshiva
in Kiryat Moshe. Explaining the extremely harsh language
of the letter to his students, Tau said, The letter
was written with some pathos, with the intention of shocking
and setting off all the alarms.
The name of the new yeshiva, Har Hamor, is taken from a
verse in the Song of Songs that reads, Until the day
cools, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain
of myrrh (har hamor). The significance of the
name is clear, says one student at the new institution:
the yeshiva is temporary until the heat dissipates and the
shadows fade over Mercaz. But judging from the strident
tone of the letter that precipitated the crisis, and Shapiras
unequivocal response, this could take a long time.
For weeks, leading figures in the national-religious camp,
including rabbis Haim Druckman, Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear-Yashuv
Cohen and Shlomo Aviner, have tried to get the sides back
together, but to no avail. One student who broke away from
Shapira maintains that, although the institute was the trigger
for the chasm, the tensions between the two rabbis - both
ideological and personal - have been there for years.
Had there not been personal problems between the
two, there would not have been a split, says Rabbi
Avraham Brun, secretary-general of the Hesder Yeshiva Association.
This split shows that there cannot be two kings on
the same throne.
Tau is widely considered one of the closest disciples of
Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual mentor of Gush Emunim who
headed Mercaz Harav for some 50 years after his fathers
death in 1935. Zvi Yehuda was the unchallenged leader of
the national-religious movement until his death.
According to reports that appeared in the NRP daily, Hatzofeh,
Tau saw himself as the logical heir to Kook as dean of Mercaz
Harav. But he was disappointed by the joint appointment
of then-chief rabbi Shapira - who had long been associated
with Mercaz - and Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli, another leading
halachic figure. When Yisraeli died two years ago, Shapira
became the sole head of the yeshiva. However, since Zvi
Yehudas death, no one has matched the younger Kooks
Rabbi Shapira is a halachic authority who can compete
on even terms with anybody in the haredi world, says
Rabbi Benny Elon, the Moledet MK who studied for a number
of years at Mercaz and considers himself a student of both
Shapira and Tau.
According to Elon, Shapira - who studied in the haredi
world - is a classic halachic man who studied
in Lithuanian-style yeshivot, which emphasize the study
of Talmud and Halacha. By contrast, Elon says, Tau - who
studied at Mercaz - is a philosopher. Taus
philosophy is vintage Kook, with an emphasis on Redemption,
and the role the return of the People of Israel to the Land
of Israel plays in this divine drama. What sets Tau - who
defies easy classification - apart from so many others who
share this world view is a fervent emphasis on what in Hebrew
is called malchutiyut, the royal
dignity of the state and its institutions.
Rabbi Tau sees the state as holy, and also views
the states institutions as holy, says Benjamin
Ish-Shalom, a former Hebrew University professor of Jewish
philosophy who today heads Beit Morasha of Jerusalem - the
Center for Advanced Jewish Studies. In this world view,
the Knesset represents the will of the people, and
the will of the people is an authentic revelation of Gods
What this means in practice is that the institutions of
the state must be treated with almost regal respect, even
if one disagrees with government policy. Tau objected to
the decision by the yeshiva not to invite then-prime minister
Yitzhak Rabin to ceremonies commemorating Jerusalem Day,
a major holiday at the yeshiva. Tau strenuously objected
to his students taking part in antigovernment demonstrations.
He objected to the call signed by a number of leading figures
in the national- religious camp directing soldiers to disobey
orders to dismantle settlements or military installations
in the territories. The day after Rabin was assassinated,
Taus students found him at home, sitting on the floor,
with ashes on his head and wearing a torn garment, the biblical
trappings of mourning.
In Taus philosophy, the Land of Israel is holy,
but so is the State of Israel, explains Bar-Ilan University
political science professor Eliezer Don-Yehiya, who has
written extensively on religious Zionism. One must
not harm the state in order to ensure the integrity of the
land. This outlook is at odds with that held by Shapira,
who was at the forefront of rabbis who actively and openly
opposed the Oslo Accords, to the point of calling on soldiers
to disobey orders.
Shapira is much less spiritualistic then Tau,
says Ish-Shalom. He is a halachic person with a pragmatic
approach. Shapira also sees the state as holy, but as a
tool which can further other goals. In this he is close
to the haredi way of thinking. If the state is not fulfilling
the purpose, it can be brought back into line. His view
is not at all mystical.
Tau is closer to [Avraham and Zvi Yehuda] Kook in
attributing holiness to the very framework of the state.
These differences in nuance have led some to the mistaken
conclusion that Tau is a political moderate, compared to
Shapira. But, says Dov Schwartz, a Bar-Ilan University professor
of Jewish philosophy, both believe in the necessity of settling
all of Israel. Their differences are over tactics, not fundamental
Indeed, two months ago it was Tau who was a major force
behind the move of Mercaz Harav students into the house
owned by Irving Moskowitz in Jerusalems Ras al-Amud
neighborhood. There is no contradiction between this and
his moderate view regarding active opposition to government
policy, since he believes that the will of the people is
that Jews should live in all parts of the city.
According to Schwartz, the Tau school is no more moderate
in its ideological view of the territories, but rather is
fearful of violence and where it can lead. In Taus
world view, which is heavily influenced by kabbalistic thought,
the nation is at the point where things must get very bad
before redemption can come. Oslo and its obligations to
cede parts of Eretz Yisrael is a manifestation of things
getting very bad. Fighting with the secular world over the
accords will only delay the redemptive process. As such,
it must be avoided.
Elon says that as a team, Tau and Shapira complemented
each other perfectly at Mercaz - Tau the philosopher, the
maven on the writings of rabbis Avraham Yitzhak and Zvi
Yehuda Kook; and Shapira the posek, the halachic arbiter.
together they expressed the ideal of Rabbi Kook,
says Elon. One without the other will be lacking.
Tension between a charismatic and a pragmatic leader is
a common thread in the history of the national-religious
movement, according to Schwartz, author of Emuna al Parashat
Drachim (Faith at the Crossroads: The Theology of
the Religious Zionist Movement) published last year.
The rift between Tau and Shapira is nothing but a continuation
of the struggles that have taken place throughout the history
of the movement. It was preceded by struggles between Avraham
Kook and Yaacov Reines, the founder of the Mizrahi
movement, which Kook objected to; and between the kabbalist
and ascetic, Rabbi Yaacov Moshe Harlap, who Kooks
followers thought should have been the states first
chief rabbi, and Yitzhak Herzog, who got the job.
The rational leaders are those who take into account
the present situation, Schwartz says, while
the charismatic ones choose to ignore the present situation
and see themselves as working under Divine influence.
The tension between the practical and the charismatic approaches
is behind the disagreement over the teachers institute
at the yeshiva, according to Schwartz. Rabbi Shapira
is more of a rationalist, a pragmatist. He knows that after
10 years or more of study, the students want something in
hand. They dont want to be without any profession,
so there is a need to compromise.
Tau, on the other hand, is a fervent believer in learning
Torah for its own sake, without distractions.
Ish-Shalom maintains that the disagreement over the institute
is not a minor issue, but a major ideological one. Tau
represents the approach that wants to maintain Mercaz as
a pure spiritual center, a kind of spiritual preserve in
a world dominated by pragmatism and careerism, he
says. He wants to produce pure, spiritual people,
cut off from ambitions, even at the price of economic difficulties.
German sociologist Max Weber, according to Ish-Shalom,
taught that ideas, places, institutions and texts could
have the sort of almost- magnetic charisma that some people
exhibit. Mercaz Harav is a perfect example of this.
Until recently, one could walk into Mercaz, Ish-Shalom
says, see the students studying for hours on end and
feel in the air that these people were on a different spiritual
plane, unconcerned about the problems of the world. You
have people like that at other yeshivot as well, but not
to the same degree or in the same quantities.
Ish-Shalom maintains that Shapira was concerned about the
financial well-being of the yeshiva, and thought the institute
would give it needed funds without affecting the yeshivas
But, Ish-Shalom says, a teachers institute at the
yeshiva would have changed the yeshiva.
It might not have changed the atmosphere in other
yeshivot, but it would in Mercaz, he says, at
least from what it was before, from that pure atmosphere
of learning solely for learnings sake. It would entail
changes in the yeshivaÕs schedule. It would
mean students would have to write papers, go out and do
field work, be tested on what they learned.
No longer would the students only have to give an
accounting to God, but also to the Education Ministry. It
would be a different atmosphere.
Since the establishment of Har Hamor, Shapira has said
he does not intend, and never intended, that teachersÕ
institute would hold classes at the yeshiva. Yet Tau has
told his students he will still not go back to Mercaz.
I feel torn between two worlds, says one student
who has studied at Mercaz for six years. His solution to
the conflict is to divide his time between the two competing
institutions, studying at Har Hamor in the morning, and
Mercaz in the afternoon. Others, however, will have to choose
between their spiritual parents.
The choice has created some strain between the students
who follow each rabbi. But, according to one student who
declined to give his name, the tension has been around
for quite a while. But it is not as if people have stopped
talking to each other, its not like what happened
when Degel Hatorah broke away from Agudat Yisrael.
Though the students of both are still talking, they do
not see each other as often. Those who broke away from Mercaz
left not only the study hall, but the dormitories as well,
and are living in rented flats in Kiryat Menahem. The physical
facilities at Har Hamor cannot compare with the well-established,
far more spacious Mercaz. The neighborhood synagogue converted
into the yeshiva is already far too small. A new wing
has been added: a tarp attached to the side of the small
building, which serves as a makeshift dining area.
Last week a conciliatory letter, on Mercaz Harav letterhead,
was posted in the dining area, wishing the students of the
new yeshiva well in their studies. It also included a call
to study the classic works against slander and gossip written
by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, commonly known as the Hafetz
Haim. A similar call to study these works every day after
morning services appeared on a bulletin board at Mercaz,
along with an explanation that it is especially important
at this time to review halachot governing interpersonal
Students at both yeshivot are extremely wary of talking
publicly about the rift, concerned that they may harm rabbis
they deeply respect or add fuel to a fire they hope will
be contained. A photocopied page of a book on the writings
of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav was posted at the entrance to
Mercaz Haravs dormitory, sandwiched between looking
for roommate notices and advertisements for holy books.
Somebody had underlined a passage that read: It is
forbidden for us to get involved in halachic disagreements
between rabbis and sages as long as each side brings support
from the Talmud and halachic literature [for his positions].
According to Hebrew University Jewish philosophy professor
Avi Ravitzky, the split may have a positive side effect:
Choosing between the rabbis is forcing the students to grapple
with the idea that there may not be one absolute truth.
For many people, the halachic and philosophic authority
was housed in one place, says Ravitzky, author of
Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism. Now
this will be split between two institutions, and it will
be impossible for students to identify totally with either.
I see this as a positive development, because people will
learn that there is no total truth, but that it is split
- some here, some there. This can lead to a break of an
educational philosophy leaning toward total, absolute truth.
This breaking up of the truth will also have an effect
on the National Religious Party, which - although it never
set up a counterpart to Shass Council of Torah Sages
- does have a tradition of consulting with Shapira, former
chief rabbi Mordechai Eliahu and leading Mercaz rabbis before
making major policy decisions.
NRP MK Nissan Slomiansky says the party will continue to
consult with Shapira and Eliahu, and that the split will
not have much of an impact on it. When we look for
Torah giants, we find Rabbi Shapira and Rabbi Eliahu,
Slomiansky says. Rabbi Tau is not a halachic arbiter.
He deals with the writings of [the rabbis] Kook and Jewish
thought. There are many like him.
But Elon maintains that the split will have more of an
impact than Slomiansky lets on: When there are disagreements
between great rabbis, it lessens the authority of the spiritual
leadership. This lessens the status of Rabbi Shapira, and
politicians may use this to their advantage, he says.
If someone does not like what Rabbi Shapira says,
he can say, OK, Ill go ask Rabbi Tau.
Whereas Elon sees this as a negative development, since
on political matters Shapira - like Elon - is an unabashed
hawk, Ish-Shalom says it may induce more politically moderate
voices to come to the fore in the NRP.
I assume that the split will have a moderating influence
on the national- religious public, Ish-Shalom says,
because the NRP will no longer be standing opposite
one united spiritual leadership, and that leadership will
seem less threatening. MKs who may have been more open on
certain matters in the past took certain [conservative]
stands, believing that their voters wanted them to follow
the direction of the spiritual leadership.
But now that the spiritual leadership is going in more
than one direction, says Ish-Shalom, the politicians
will have more maneuverability.
In addition, he says, the weakening of the old leadership
may lead to the sprouting of a new one, including rabbis
who learned under Shapira and Tau and were unlikely to openly
According to Ish-Shalom, a process of soul-searching has
been taking place in the national-religious camp since the
Rabin assassination, which has translated itself into a
desire for more dialogue with the nonreligious public. He
says that elements in the camp are looking for ways to moderate
its message, and that the leadership crisis at Mercaz may
afford them that opportunity.
The weakening of the established leadership can speed
up the process, Ish-Shalom says. It can lead
to an alternative leadership. As the influence of the existing
leadership weakens, the influence of other voices will increase.
Bar-Ilan Universitys Don-Yehiya maintains that there
has always been pluralism in the national-religious camp
and that now it has simply come into the open. This
situation may even be preferable, says Don-Yehiya.
Now that there are two yeshivot, everyone will be
able to find his place.
In addition to the political ramifications, Ish-Shalom
predicts that the move may also have far-reaching educational
and cultural significance. He says that the rightward trend
in religious education - more Torah studies at the expense
of secular studies - may now be stemmed since the leadership
that has set the tone is now divided. If they were hesitant
to go against directives from Mercaz, that situation is
likely to change.
But don-t expect dramatic changes overnight, Ish- Shalom
says. Changes like this are gradual. Cultural processes
Even gradual changes need a catalyst, and the break at
Mercaz may have provided one that could have major repercussions.
Herb Keinon, A Divided Soul. , Jerusalem Post, 12-12-1997,