Yehezkel Cohen Z”l of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah

According to their own website, the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah Movement is a 40-year-old, a-political religious Zionist movement that was founded by Yehezkel Cohen with Prof. Hanna Safrai, Prof. Ze’ev Safrai, Dr. Avraham Nuriel. It sought to return religious Zionism to its roots. Its orientation aims to promote the values of tolerance, equality and justice in religious society, and to have an impact on the Jewish and democratic character of Israeli society. Committed to Jewish law, the movement works to create a thinking, religious culture that is both open and self-critical, and to encourage a constructive Halachic discourse that deals with the challenges of contemporary times. Its focus is not limited to one area or issue but rather seeks to influence the religious culture of the country and to create a religious discourse that will cover all aspects of life.

Yehezkel Cohen Z”l (born 1938, Tel Aviv) passed away this past week. (h/t menachem mendel). In his eulogy Rabbi Benny Lau stated that Yehezkel Cohen recognized the danger of the changes and warned.

He was the pioneer before this camp. Back in the early seventies he recognized the trend. As an expert diagnosist, he warned of the risks of being dragged after the populaces do not identify with the principles of Zionism and modernity. He fought stubbornly for the burning issues: general education, recruitment of yeshiva students, integration of women in public life, attitudes towards to non-Jews. He recognized the danger and warned. As a soldier stood on guard and not let go… Many left him with a shrug. Others pointed to him as dinosaur.

In the 1970’s, the original 1920’s vision of the Mizrachi movement was fading as the younger generation moved beyond the farm and austerity. In addition, the Bnai Akiva world was turning to the separate of sexes and the reduction of secular studies. This organization wanted to return the ideal of Torah and avodah. They understood Rav Kook by the phrase “the old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified.” They understood the core of Rav Soloveitchik as “I believe in perfect faith that this Torah has been given to be fulfilled and realized in every place and every time, and in all social, economic and cultural frameworks; under all technological circumstances and in all political conditions”. They also viewed Haredim as sectarian and ideological not as pious. Yehezkel Cohen published an ideological tract that was translated into English.

Below are some selections from the little tract. They see themselves as restoring the original Religious Zionism. Torah today must engage the world, the traditional approach is about separation from the world. For the Relgious Zionist, worldly life is in itself a sacred mission, god’s will is ethical, we should engage all cultural creativity, and work for social justice. Cohen sees the left –wing (his term) of Religious Zionism as the true bearers of the message and embraces the rejection from the Haredim as “hating the Torah world.” He wanted the kulturekampf.

Cohen acknowledged that “Religious Zionism achieved physical maturity without commensurate maturity of its theoretical ideas.” And he acknowledged that “not all of the activities of Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah are beyond reproach or criticism.”

Platform: (1) No full time Torah study (2) There is a need for science and culture, Rav Kook taught us that rejecting culture is only due to “smallness of faith.”(3) Women need to study Torah (4) Women need greater roles in public and religious life. Modesty is based on the needs of the time. Don’t claim it is not in the halakhah, because the pure halakhah bans women and single men from teaching, and women from going out in public. Yet, the haredim don’t follow the tradition. (5) Personal responsibility for and participation in the burden of national and state obligations. In other words, one lives according to the halakhah in a spirit of independent thought and personal responsibility.

He decries the erosion of the Religious Zionist world toward the direction of those of the Ultra- Orthodox community such as the rejection of co-ed activities or limited secular studies.
For him, Halakhic pluralism within Orthodox Jewry is a fact. (In the 1990’s they turned over the reigns of the organization to younger leadership with new ideas and their were many new authors for their journal Deot.)

Authors: Rabbi Michael Nehorai , Dr. Yehezkel Cohen

There have recently been many inquiries, both oral and written, concerning the principles guiding the movement known as Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah (“Loyalists of Torah and Labor”). In the following pages, I shall attempt to demonstrate that these principles are identical with those which were inherent in the earliest, founding stage of the historic Religious Zionist movement. This movement, which acted out of a combination of national mission and religious sensibility, never formulated its ideology in a conceptual, philosophical manner, so that its fundamental principles came to be forgotten over the course of time.

According to the underlying conception of Religious Zionism, Judaism is manifested in the fact that it presents the various elements – religion, nation and land – as interrelated. Indeed, the words of the Torah clearly assume the inter-relationship of all elements of existence- individual, people and land.
This argument is elaborated in the words of Rabbi Kook, uttered in another context: “If a person wishes to state novellae concerning matters of Repentance in this time, but does not look towards the revealed end and the emergence of the light of salvation, he will be unable to direct anything towards the truth of the Torah” (Iggerot ha-Re’eyah, Vol. II, p.37).

The traditional religious ideal was one of maximal separation from the life of this world, focused upon Torah study as the goal of life. How can such an ideal be squared with that of the wholeness of Judaism in a modern state, expressed through military service, the study of science, and the acceptance of the authority of a democratically-chosen government?

Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915) the founder of Religious Zionism, was the first to offer a religious legitimization for change and variety in the Jewish way of life

Worldly life is in itself a sacred mission, not only a passage-way to the next world. The obligations towards the nation and the state incumbent upon a person as the result of human conscience are also commandments. God’s will is itself ethical, so that it is inconceivable that an act which appears good and necessary from a human viewpoint be proscribed for religious reasons. Such a spiritual climate expanded the framework of religious intent and legitimized the natural human desire to be involved in all realms of cultural expression. In particular, a religious dimension was given to the study of science and the concern for social justice as preconditions for full involvement in the life of the nation and the state.

Ne’ emanei Torah va-Avodah as Carriers of the Religious Zionist Idea
Torah and Avodah was always the slogan of B’nai Akiva and of the National Religious Party in general, and only recently has it been taken over by the left-wing of the national-religious camp, who claim exclusive right thereto. This slogan always aroused the criticism of Torah circles. The placing of another value (i.e. Avodah) on equal footing with Torah unseated the latter from its position of supremacy, Labor being treated as a parallel ideal. Those who negated this slogan argued that, if the Torah is the main thing, all of man’s other needs and the components of his life are determined by what follows from it.

The message implied by the expression Torah va-Avodah in our day, and the monopoly claimed over it by those within the NRP who hate the Torah world and have claimed this expression as their own, indicates that that which the great Torah scholars feared has come true, (ha-Modia. 1 Ellul 5747 [Sept 1987] ).
Historically, Religious Zionism achieved physical maturity without commensurate maturity of its theoretical ideas. It did not articulate the great goal intended for it by history – to unify in action, through its way of life, the full scope of the Jewish spirit.

Even if not all of the activities of Ne’emanei Torah va-Avodah are beyond reproach or criticism, one must credit it with the fact that it has brought about a revival of the original principles defining the identity of Religious Zionism.
The Fourteenth “Principle of Faith”- Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

A second fundamental truth upon which our movement is based may be expressed in a fourteenth “principle of faith”. What is this principle? It may be formulated in the simple declaration: “I believe in perfect faith that this Torah has been given to be fulfilled and realized in every place and every time, and in all social, economic and cultural frameworks; under all technological circumstances and in all political conditions”.

We reject the approach of separatism as dangerous to the survival of the (Jewish) nation. … As a result of this approach, there is a concrete danger that we will become reduced to a small sect, which cannot long survive. We solemnly declare that the principle of the eternity of the Torah assures us that it is possible to study the Torah and to fulfill it, not only in the House of Study and in the ghetto, but in every place in the world, be it in the modern home, laboratory, campus or factory; in private life or in sovereign existence. [Num. 13:30].– from “The Second Principle: ,’It is Not in Heaven'” (Hebrew), in his Hamesh Derashot,Jerusalem, 1974, pp. 111-113.

The New will be Sanctified and the Holy will Be Renewed

The term Haredi refers, not to punctiliousness in the observance of mitzvot – i.e., “one who fears the word of God”- but to a community which, from a religious-social-cultural perspective, identifies with Agudat Yisrael; which refers to itself by the term Haredi; and which claims for itself greater religiosity and a monopoly upon the path towards God

1. Torah study is an important value, and considerable time ought to be devoted to Torah study. However, the ultimate goal of the Jewish people is to live a natural, earthly life according to the Torah – whether within the private framework of the individual or as active participants in the life of the state and society. In the dispute between Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai, we are followers of Rabbi Ishmael:

2. Science and positive aspects of general culture ought to form a part of the spiritual world of the religious Jew. We cite the words of Rabbi Kook:
Because of their smallness of faith, it seems (to some people) that whatever human beings do in order to strengthen their position… to acquire knowledge, strength, beauty, order – that all these are outside of the Divine contents within the world. For this reason some people, who think of themselves as relying upon a Divine basis, look askance upon any worldly progress and hate culture and science…But all this is a great error and a lack of faith. (Arpelei Tohar, Sect. 47).

Ignorance of science and general culture not only deprives one of an important spiritual dimension of one’s humanity and harms one’s own Judaism, but also prevents the religious public from occupying positions of importance and influence in the state and in society, leaving the shaping of our society in the hands of the secularists alone.

3. Woman as a person of dignity in her own right. As such, she is entitled to and deserving of intellectual and cultural, as well as full religious development (i.e. Torah study)
Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, who writes that: “In the earlier days, when a woman was exclusively a housewife and the girls did not study at all… but in our day, when they engage in general studies with great seriousness, why should Torah study be inferior?” (Aseh lekha Rav, Vol. II: p. 193).

4. The participation of women in public life and in the shaping of society, sharing both in the privileges and obligations implied in such. This implies the existence of a mixed society. Those who reject this tendency in the name of sexual modesty argue that the choice is between modesty, attained by woman staying at home, and licentiousness, resulting from woman’s involvement in society. The advocates of Torah and Avodah believe that the principles of modesty, as opposed to the specific details derived from the life situation of previous generations, both can and do exist in a mixed society.

One frequently hears the demand, aggressively directed towards our circles, that one follow the laws of modesty as formulated in the Mishneh Torah. the Shulhan Arukh. and similar halakhic codes. This is the reason offered by those who advocate the division of B’nai Akiva into two separate movements for boys and for girls. Yet those who make these demands, and the Ultra-Orthodox public generally, themselves fail to observe a number of regulations of the Shulhan Arukh concerning this subject.

Both the Shulhan Arukh (Even ha-Ezer 22:20) and Maimonides (Issurel Bi’ah 22:13) contain halakhic rulings, based upon the Mishnah and the Talmud, stating in a clear and unequivocal manner that a woman or an unmarried man are not allowed to engage in teaching, for reasons of modesty and mixing between men and women. Yet the entire Independent Educational system of Agudat Yisrael (Hinukh Atzma’i) is built upon female teachers, while unmarried men likewise serve there as teachers. What happened to the principle of modesty? This problem is articulated in the comments of several later halakhic authorities:

The Shulhan Arukh rules that “A man must separate himself from women very greatly” (Even ha-Ezer 21:1). How does this explicit halakhah square with the fact that, in offices, shops and the like, one finds Haredi women working alongside men, including non-religious men? Maimonides rules that:

It is shameful for a woman to go about constantly, sometimes out of doors and sometimes in the streets. A husband is to prevent his wife from doing this, and not allow her to go out except once a month or several times a month. (MT, Ishut 13:11).
How many Haredi families observe this law? One could cite many other examples, but these will suffice. How are we to understand all this? An answer may be found in the remarks of Rabbi Saul Yisraeli who, in his discussion of National Service for girls, observes that: “It seems that the limits of (the principle), ‘All the honor of the king’s daughter is within’ depends upon local custom” (Rabbi J. L. Maimon, ed., ha-Torah veha-Medinah, Vol. IV: p.226).

5. Personal responsibility for and participation in the burden of national and state obligations. The religious public is not a group enjoying special privileges. Therefore, all young men and women are obligated to serve in the various frameworks available to them. The mitzvah of Torah study does not exempt one from other mitzvot, including that of military service:

In other words, one lives according to the halakhah in a spirit of independent thought and personal responsibility, rejecting those approaches in which the individual abnegates his personal responsibility in favor of one or another halakhic authority. Judaism implies personal responsibility for the sanctification of life, accepting the tradition on the basis of independent and critical thought.

Joseph of 1902 (i.e., the Mizrachi) felt that it was forbidden to rely upon the status quo, that great changes were about to take place in the life of the Jewish people, and that we must be ready and prepared for these changes… In our day, the Creator of the Universe has ruled that the halakhah follows Joseph of1902 (against the entire yeshivah world of that time!). (״Joseph and His Brothers”, Hamesh Derashot,Jerusalem, 1974, p. 23).

In recent years, at the initiative of certain circles within the National-Religious public, a degree of erosion has taken place in the principles and way of life of Torah and Avodah, toward the direction of those of the Ultra- Orthodox community. Some examples of this erosion are: the circle associated with Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav has estabished a religious high school for girls whose students are forbidden to belong to mixed youth movements (i.e., B’nai Akiva or Ezra), as well as a heder which limits secular studies to the absolute minimum. In the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a new youth movement was established, in which there is absolute separation of boys and girls.

Had these things been done in order to meet the legitimate needs of those who do them and members of their circle, we could accept them. However, those who advocate these changes openly declare that it is their intention to make their way that of the entire national-religious public (see, for example, Moreshet, No. 3, p. 71).

These acts of omission and commission express the “Haredi” world-view. This view has halakhic sources, just as the path of Torah and Avodah is based upon the halakhah. Halakhic pluralism within Orthodox Jewry is a fact that cannot be

Read 20 more pages here.

One response to “Yehezkel Cohen Z”l of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah

  1. “4. The participation of women in public life and in the shaping of society”

    See letter from HaRav Kook z”l in HaDerech (1920):

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