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American Orthodox Leaders Try To Stay Above Fray

American Orthodox leaders say they are struggling to stay out of the debates tearing at Israel’s religious community over Prime Minister Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan.

Modern Orthodox groups in America traditionally look to Israel’s so-called national religious camp, embodied in the National Religious Party and the chief rabbinate, as primary counterparts in Israel. Like Israeli religious Zionists, most view the state of Israel and its institutions as embodying sacred Jewish values. With the state proposing to divide the sacred land of Israel, and the religious party and the rabbinate divided over how to respond, American Orthodox leaders say they are torn.

None of the major groups has taken sides, yet some hint at likely leanings as the crisis mounts.

Spokesmen for the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America said they would not comment on principle. “Jews who want to take sides in Israeli politics should make aliya,” or settle in Israel, said David Luchins, an O.U. vice president.

The Religious Zionists of America probably will await the outcome of the debate within the National Religious Party, said executive vice president emeritus Israel Friedman. “Some of our people believe in the rabbinate ruling,” Friedman said, referring to Israeli rabbis who have banned cooperation with the disengagement. However, he warned that bolting Sharon’s coalition would leave decision-making in the hands of liberals. “If we quit the government,” he said, “we live in a period of mamzerim like Lapid and others.”

“Partial withdrawal, there is no other solution,” Friedman said.

The National Council of Young Israel similarly has not taken a position. However, its executive vice president, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, hinted that he and his group lean toward the hard-liners. He cited his organizational and personal relationships with the religious mentors of the settler movement, former chief rabbis Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, both of whom have spoken strongly against Sharon’s plan. “I assume… if we had to sit down and make some decisions, Rabbi Shapira’s and Rabbi Eliyahu’s input would have significant weight,” he said, adding that the council “probably would fall more on the side that’s listening to the rabbis than the one that is not.”

Lerner emphasized that his group has “member synagogues in Gaza that are being directly affected” by the withdrawal and that “the Young Israel movement has always been a believer in greater Israel.”

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