While driving in a Haredi neighborhood in Yerushalayim the other day, I noticed the latest wall poster, here as in Red China the preferred method of conveying news, information and public sentiment. In fact, there were two identical signs, side by side for emphasis, ominously citing the Biblical injunction: “Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek… lo tishkach” – “Remember what Amalek did to you… Do not forget!”For additional emphasis, the word “Amalek” was written in white on a black background.
Only the word “Amalek” was substituted with the phrase “HaBayit Hayehudi.” “Remember what the “Jewish Home” did to you…do not forget,” the “Bayit Hayehudi,” of course, being the Israeli political party that began with a Religious Zionist base and has expanded its reach across most sectors of Israeli society.
The ire of the inhabitants of this neighborhood, or at least the producers of this wall poster, has been raised by Bayit Hayehudi’s platform and post-election insistence on some type of burden-sharing from the Haredi community, especially in terms of compulsory military or national service and increased participation in the work force. What has galled the Haredim is Bayit Hayehudi’s alliance with Yesh Atid, a nominally secular party that accentuated the need for “equality of burden” during the campaign, but also contains members who are Religious Zionist and Haredi.
Nothing here ever is what it seems to be, and this is no different. It has emerged in the last week that after the election Bayit Hayehudi first turned to the Haredi parties (Shas in particular) and suggested forming an alliance of religious parties – but were summarily and somewhat imperiously rebuffed by Shas who felt their ticket into the government rested on distancing themselves from Bayit Hayehudi and seizing the spoils of government for themselves. That rejection turned Bayit Hayehudi to Yair Lapid and his party Yesh Atid, in what is shaping up to be a brilliant political maneuver – both tactical and substantive.
The absence of the Haredi parties from the coalition with all that entails in loss of perks and power (i.e., money for their institutions) and the fear that the new coalition will in fact legislate Haredi participation in compulsory public service is what has engendered the hysterics on the wall posters, and the characterization of Bayit Hayehudi as “Amalek.”
They are certainly a different type of “Amalek” than the one with which we are familiar in the Torah and Jewish history. The real Amalek attacked the nascent Jewish people without provocation and throughout our history has been a consistent tormentor, the repository of all things evil: denial of G-d, relentless hatred of the Jewish people and absolute rejection of our rights to the land of Israel.
To their thinking, apparently, this new “Amalek” is expected to defend the very Jews who besmirch them, support them financially, and kowtow before their every wish and desire. If, indeed, that had been the manifesto of Amalek history – protection and support of Jews – then it is extremely doubtful we would be praying for their destruction in every generation. In fact, we would want their tribe to increase and prosper.
Yet, what the reprehensible characterization does is illuminate, or at least brings again to the table, a question that Jews have frequently asked of each other – a question that should be asked at a dinner table if you want to start an interesting discussion with unpredictable twists and turns, a question raised last week by a columnist in “Besheva,” the Religious-Zionist based weekly newspaper.
The question, asked of Religious-Zionists in Israel, is: to whom do you feel closer: to a Haredi or to a Chiloni (secular Jew)? This question arises in different forms in America, in the Modern Orthodox world: to whom do you feel closer – to a Haredi Jew or to a non-Orthodox Jew? Or, to whom to you feel closer – to a non-Orthodox Jew or to a religious Christian?
Note that “feeling closer to” does not mean “love.” We love all Jews, with their flaws, because we all have flaws. The question then is not about love but about closeness, identification, and symmetry of world view and life experiences. Ask these questions, and you will inevitably be surprised by the range of answers received. In the United States, I sense most ModO Jews feel closer to Haredim, because the study of Torah and observance of Mitzvot bring together both groups. It is rather effortless to pray together, learn together, and share together the rhythms of Jewish life, none of which are that simply achieved with non-Orthodox Jews. Granted, some will argue cogently, that the attitudes of ModO and non-O Jews toward modern life are much more similar than the attitudes toward same of Haredi Jews – but the question is not about perfect identification (otherwise, there wouldn’t be different groups) but of “feeling closer.” I sense this is the majority sentiment, but of course there is no right answer and no psak (halachic decision) either!
The last question about affinity for non-O Jews or religious Christians is much more challenging for us. The bonds of blood are strong, and we share the same destiny with our fellow Jews. But to the extent that non-Orthodox Jews worship at the shrine of liberalism, see liberal policies as the sum and substance of Torah, and are not observant of or knowledgeable about Jewish law and practice drives an emotional wedge that makes the question pertinent. To a great extent, religious Christians share the value system of traditional Jews, coming as it does from the Torah. They are comfortable with faith and the public expression of faith, have no interest in banishing “G-d” from the public sector, and often live their lives bounded by Christian ritual and observances in a similar way to what religious Jews do in our lives. Is blood stronger than values and faith? Ask around, and the answers (again, no right or wrong possible) might surprise you.
I reiterate that the issue is not love but closeness, affinity or kinship – and also that speaking in generalities is always somewhat misleading. The tendency to respond definitively based on a particular Jew or non-Jew that we know is tempting but disingenuous. Think not of a particular person but the group – with all the ambiguity that entails – and see what answers emerge. It is not a bad discussion for the seder table at the meal, as the responses go to the heart of the meaning of Jewish identity in the modern world.
To return to the first question is to see the possibility of a sea-change in Israeli life because of such hysterics as the “Amalek” references and the inability or reluctance of the Haredi world to leave their enclaves and feel like full members of the society around them. I would guess that, historically, the average Religious Zionist felt a comfort level with Haredim for many of the same reasons that ModO Jews in America do: the shared language of Torah, the love of mitzvot, even the love of Israel. But in Israel – ignoring the media straw men that are totally unrepresentative of the secular world – the average Chiloni is not anti-Torah and does not hate Judaism. The statistics that testify to the widespread observance of Shabbat on some level (around 80% light Shabbat candles, and close to that number have a real Shabbat meal), the familiarity with the holidays, the Hebrew language, the Bible and Jewish life almost belie the term “secular.”
It is no exaggeration to state that there is no comparison between the chiloni here and the non-Orthodox Jew in America in terms of knowledge and Jewish commitment (one reason why the non-Orthodox movements are still a hard-sell to Israelis), and I dare say that many chilonim are more familiar with Torah and Jewish life than are many Modern Orthodox Jews in America. (One example – my “secular” barber asked me yesterday: “do you want your haircut to last you through the Omer?”)
But in Israel, today, the mutual involvement of the chilonim and the Religious Zionists in defense, industry, culture and building the land of Israel have strengthened the bonds and made an alliance between HaBayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid – two “new” parties with obvious antecedents – seem natural and long overdue. Granted, there will always be areas of divergence – the mandatory observance of Shabbat by public entities, support for the right of Jewish settlement throughout the land of Israel, the role of religion in public life, Israel’s public diplomacy – but those critical matters are being temporarily shelved in order to focus on resolving other important issues.
The Haredi world that has long kept its distance from the rest of society has succeeded in marginalizing itself. For all its strengths, its study of Torah does not include the works – both halachic or philosophical – of anyone outside their camp. Its observance of mitzvot – again, a strength – often seems like a caricature of what the essence of Jewish life should be, with a focus on external appearances as well as an obsession with the separation of the sexes that at times seems paranoid, if not outright dysfunctional, even given the rampant decadence in society. Their strictures are not traditional Torah norms as much as they are reactions (and probably overreactions)to a world that to them appears irredeemably degenerate.
The attitude that many in the Haredi world project – “we represent the true Jews, and therefore you must indulge us and support us” – does not really resonate anymore with most of the population, many of whom see the shirking of their responsibilities in national defense and self-support as the antithesis of Torah, not its observance or fulfillment.
And that is a terrible shame. The instinctive response of every Torah Jew is to join forces for the common good of all Jews. The parochialism that is rampant is increasingly off-putting and destructive. That the goal of having all Jews work together is met by the extremists with cries of “Amalek,” and by some rabbinical leaders during the campaign apparently oblivious to the laws of lashon hara who denigrated Naftali Bennett and others with the most derisive insults, does not bode well for the future.
The good news is, first, that circumstances may force changes in the Haredi world if their financial support from the tax dollars of others is cut drastically; and, second, that Pesach is coming, a reminder of the shared origin and common destiny of all Jews.
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- Great Rabbis of the 20th Century, Part 18: The Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 12: Crisis and Faith, the 1990's [audio]
- Introduction to Selichot: Old Me, New Me [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 11: Build-Up and Breakdown, the 1980's [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 10: Darkness and Light, the 1970's [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 9: Golden Opportunity - The 1960's [audio]
- How to Love Every Jew [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 8: 1950's - Return and Restoration [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 7: 1940's - Devastation and Renewal [audio]
- A History of Israel, Part 6: 1930's - The Gathering Storm [audio]