April 18, 2024
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Bezalel Smotrich and Modern Orthodoxy

Last week, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich generated a couple of minor international incidents in his first trip abroad as finance minister. During his trip he visited the United States and France but had no official government meetings, primarily on account of the refusal of government officials in each country to meet with him due to certain of his policy positions that they found to be extremist and unacceptable.

After a video was posted of Smotrich’s speech to a group of American investors, a popular Israeli satirical television show, “Eretz Nehederet,” roasted Smotrich over his heavy Israeli accent and broken English. This included having the actor playing Smotrich introduce himself as “Minister of Treasure” and otherwise poking fun at his difficulty with English. Another skit dropped Smotrich into an old “Friends” episode where Phoebe attempts unsuccessfully to teach French to Joey, eventually giving up on her dense pupil.

While interesting in its own right, the dustup about Smotrich’s mediocre language skills is significant for the unspoken currents underlying it. Indeed, it is not uncommon for diplomats to visit foreign countries and speak with a heavy accent or through a translator. In Smotrich’s case, however, his weakness in English is a representation of a much more fundamental cultural disconnect. As a devout Religious Zionist, Smotrich’s worldview is, in a way, totally incomprehensible to much of the Western world, and certainly to the liberal diplomatic corps. While the readers of this paper may not necessarily agree with everything that Smotrich says, his Torah-based ideology is coherent to us. Not so for the liberal elites of the contemporary West. Concepts like divine right to territory in the West Bank, fealty to Torah law in the land of Israel and hostility to homosexuality are lost in translation in much the same way as Smotrich’s broken and heavily accented English.

Some in these pages and elsewhere (for example, Rabbi Elie Mischel in an article in HaMizrachi entitled “It’s Time to Move On: From Modern Orthodoxy to Religious Zionism”) have advocated for a transition from American-style Modern Orthodoxy to Israeli-style Religious Zionism. Bezalel Smotrich is the perfect example of what would be lost in such a transition. Modern Orthodoxy functions as an intermediary: it straddles the secular and religious worlds, relates to both, and can translate between them. Anyone who has ever had to explain to their boss why they are taking off work for Yom Tov intuitively understands this. Indeed, the intermediary role of Modern Orthodoxy is one that has historically been associated with Jews. As a stateless people for millennia, Jews often served as cultural intermediaries, facilitating connections between civilizations and ideologies that would otherwise be incomprehensible to each other. Religious Zionism cannot play this role.

Indeed, for this reason the transition from Modern Orthodoxy to Religious Zionism is neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable. Consider all of the diplomatic flare-ups and incidents that have been triggered by Israel’s new right-wing government. These flare-ups, while obviously related to the different policy positions of the new Israeli government and its counter-parties, are exacerbated by the fact that many members of the Israeli government are entirely ideologically and culturally foreign to the liberal diplomatic corps of the West. They lack common cultural references, touch points, and philosophical and ideological connections, and in many ways are entirely incomprehensible to each other. To bring this into sharper relief, contrast some of the members of the current Israeli government with the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, zt’l. While certainly a Torah true Jew and an ardent Zionist, Rabbi Sacks was educated at Cambridge and Oxford. He was a native English speaker and spoke and wrote beautifully in the language. Indeed, part of Rabbi Sacks’s greatness was his ability to explain Torah ideas and philosophy in a way that secular Western audiences could understand. For Bezalel Smotrich and many other Religious Zionists in Israel, the outside world is neither their concern nor their focus, and for that reason they lack the tools to communicate with it.

So before we enumerate the flaws, real and imagined, of Modern Orthodoxy and start preparing for its demise, let us consider the essential contribution that it makes to the public square — not just the Jewish public square, but the public square in every sense of the word — as an essential mediator between religious Jewry and a Torah-based worldview and the people and philosophies of the rest of the world.


Steven Starr lives in Hillside with his wife Keshet and his children Ellie, Moshe, Meira and Rina. He can be reached at [email protected]

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