Photo Credit: The Toby Press

Title: Frayed: The Disputes Unraveling Religious Zionists
By Yair Ettinger
The Toby Press



A few weeks after the attack on October 7 and the beginning of Operation Iron Swords, a family member saw me reading Yair Ettinger’s Frayed: The Disputes Unraveling Religious Zionists (The Toby Press, 2023), and inquired politely as to why I was reading something focusing on our differences at a time when Jewish unity was of the utmost importance. We spoke about it for a few minutes before agreeing to distinguish between “difference” and “division.” Jews could differ from each other without it constituting division within the Jewish people, though some people might occasionally try and make divisions out of what ought merely be differences.

This theme emerges repeatedly throughout the events described in Frayed. As Prof. Yehuda Mirsky notes in his insightful introduction to this English translation of Ettinger’s book, most readers of the book will be familiar with the events it describes, at least in the broad outlines. What makes the book worth reading is not simply the clear presentation of events, but Ettinger’s journalistic and editorial skill in weaving disparate events together into compelling story with a coherent theme. This central theme is what Ettinger calls “The Privatization of Judaism.” In an Israeli context, “privatization” refers quite precisely to a shift from governmental control of Judaism and Jewish life to non-government organizations controlling Jewish life (much as one might talk about the “privatization” of healthcare or public transportation). The final chapter, on “Halachic Activism” details the storied processes by which the Israeli Rabbinate went from having a monopoly on kashrut certification, halachic marriage, and conversion to being just one of multiple providers of all of these elements of Jewish life (ultimately looking a lot more like Jewish life in the Diaspora than it once did).

Ettinger wants to tell a broader story than that, however, including not just questions of the Israeli Rabbinate but also more broadly of rabbinic authority in Orthodox Judaism. Ettinger tells the stories of developments in Orthodox Jewish society – some more radical, some less – which were driven by lay people rather than by rabbis, and often in the face of both established rabbinic opinion and vocal rabbinic opposition. These include liberal causes, like the revolution in women’s Talmud study and egalitarian prayer, but also nationalistic causes like violent opposition to the 2005 Disengagement and ascending to Har HaBayit, and perhaps a fusion of the two categories in the fight around women serving in the IDF. In all these areas, activists were willing to disregard the existing status quo of Orthodox society in favor of changes which they saw as well within the bounds of halacha, sometimes with rabbinic support, but sometimes in conscious opposition to models of halachic life structured around authoritative leaders.

However, it would be misleading to tell this as a simple story of the fall from grace of rabbis within Orthodox Judaism in Israel and around the world (and Ettinger is careful to note the reciprocal influences between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry). While all of this is going on, there is a simultaneous quantitative increase in rabbis and rabbi-type figures in Orthodoxy around the world. The primary driver of this in the book is the push for gender equality across Orthodox life, from Talmud study to rabbinic ordination to serving as “rabbinic advocates” in Israeli batei din and yoatsot halacha around the world, but Ettinger mentions as well that there are simply more rabbinic positions in Israel than there used to be. Shuls that once had no rabbi now have one or more, and shuls which used to have a volunteer rabbi now pay to have one on staff. Ettinger’s “privatization” might also be described as “more rabbis, with less authority.” Orthodox Jews want to have rabbis and want to be rabbis, but it is less clear that they want to have strong, centralized rabbinic authorities. (The rise of post-high school yeshiva and seminary programs, as well as more recent semichat haver programs, all of which contribute to a strong, educated, laity might be seen as part of this same picture.) Perhaps most of all, they don’t seem to want rabbis to be in charge of communal red lines, of when “difference” becomes “division.”

All communities have red lines – a defining feature of any community is what exactly those red lines are. It is therefore striking to note throughout Frayed the way that some shifts are seen as causes for communal division, while some are largely ignored as nothing more than novel differences. The chapters describing changes regarding the place of women in Orthodox Judaism depict some of the most vitriolic events in the book. Yet, as Ettinger notes, these are moments when everyone involved is committed to and concerned with Orthodox Judaism and halacha.

“Across the full gamut of religious perspectives in the Orthodox world, the liberal side broadly accepts the conservative rules of the game. It does not want to annul or change religious laws, but to foster social and moral changes based on existing religious jurisprudence. It is a matter of negotiation within the contours of halakha, and even for those inclined to be lenient, the halakhic case for change must be made by isolating the halakhic principle in question from the broader historical and social context.” (p. 74)

This is a real halachic and social debate, but it would be a mistake to depict anyone involved as unconcerned with Torah, halacha, and their integrity. Yet despite this, women and men active in this cause have often indeed been depicted as attempting to destroy traditional Judaism (this is discussed throughout the book but comes through particularly well in the interview with Prof. Tamar Ross in “Chapter VI: The Rabbi and the Professor – Two Streams of Conservatism”).

In contrast, the increasing number of Orthodox Jews who either have gone up to Har HaBayit or say they would do so, while once a clear departure of the rabbinic status quo, has not been seen as crossing communal red lines. “The mikdashnikim’s opponents are mostly keen to avoid direct confrontation; [the mikdashnikim] are not smeared as ‘Reform,’ and they are seen, even by their national-religious adversaries, as loyal to the rabbis and the Land of Israel – and therefore as legitimate” (p. 136). The “Temple Mount Faithful” might be revolutionary, but they are not seen as divisive. While figures as diverse as Dr. Tomer Persico and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner agree that those going up to Har Habayit have let nationalistic values overcome traditional Jewish values and halacha (pp. 139-140), Religious Zionism as a whole has deemed this tolerable, at the very least. The distinction between difference and division is very much in the eye of the beholder.

In light of this distinction, it might be worth asking not how we attain/maintain Jewish unity, but how we build unity across difference, how we keep differentiation from becoming division. Frayed’s opening chapter, “The Age of Bennet,” provides a stark object lesson: The very moment when Religious Zionism finally put a kippah-wearing man in the Prime Minister’s office was the very moment most Religious Zionists wrote that man off. They declared that the promises he had broken, the compromises he had made (notably, primarily on nationalistic rather than halachic questions), constituted not just difference but actually division. He had crossed red lines and was to be regarded as a political-cultural foe, rather than as kin or even a pragmatic partner. If the cause of unity is to be pursued, it will require asking sincerely whether that really is the case, or if perhaps we should be seeking to build bridges even across differences that feel very threatening.

A hero of the book, in this context, is Rabbi Yaakov Medan (the rabbi of “Chapter VI: The Rabbi and the Professor,” a chapter primarily composed of two riveting interviews), who is depicted as someone seeking to build bridges in a society made up of very different individuals and groups. With unchallengeable religious and conservative bona fides, Rav Medan set out to work with the late Prof. Ruth Gavison to create “The Gavison-Medan Covenant,” a proposed framework for religion and state in Israel involving serious compromises on both sides (as with many good compromises, neither side was happy with it, and it largely has not been adopted). Similarly, Ettinger’s discussion of Orthodox Gay Jews deftly depicts Rav Medan’s compromising desire to both be open to the real people before and committed to his traditional principles (pp. 157-158). This sort of compromising stance wins no accolades from either side, often taken to be “wishy-washy” and “inauthentic,” but in truth it is merely committed to unity, to the compromise and self-sacrifice necessitated by a life lived among and with other people with whom you disagree. You can’t wish away the people or the disagreements, so a posture similar to that of Rav Medan may be the only hope for a united future.

There is much more going on in this rich, concise volume than can be captured in a short review. In addition to all the above, I would note that Ettinger frequently provides a bird’s eye view of the relevant halachic issues and concerns discussed in a given chapter, enabling the reader to understand both sides of the debate with a depth a purely sociological depiction might lack. There are also fascinating discussions of both Rabbi Yehuda Glick and Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, each a rabbi and activist in their own way, and each defying categorization along classical religious or nationalistic lines. In Frayed: The Disputes Unraveling Religious Zionists, Yair Ettinger has provided an invaluable entrance into the dynamic Religious Zionist community of the last decade and the tensions that move it still, and he and his translators (including Eylon “Israel’s Eyebrows” Levy) are to be commended for all their hard work.

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Levi Morrow has semichah from the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Yerushalayim, where he teaches modern and medieval Jewish thought at Yeshivat Orayta.