Feeling Closer

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.

15 responses to “Feeling Closer

  1. Rabbi Steven Pruzansky said:
    “Their [Haredi] strictures are not traditional Torah norms as much as they reactions, and probably overreactions, against a world that to them appears irredeemably degenerate.”

    I saved this quick but valuable quote to my computer for permanent future reference, because it provides a clear and concise summary and explanation of numerous problems that otherwise would require hundreds of pages to fully summarize and explain.

  2. If one considers”Jewish” or Jewishness to stand and fall with the observance of religious custom than the “smart ones” are the thirteenth tribe who will attempt to survive through assimilation in the New World Order America after they will wring their hands and weep for those who will perish in the coming onslaught by Iran.Have you ever wondered why the American leaders have an H in their names? Obama H., Holder and Hegel?
    If this happens these Jews,Liberal,Orthodox,Non Observant progressives will once again wipe their hands of their fellow Jews like they did during the Shoah.Either stand with Israel or be relegated to history’s irrelevance.
    The debate is no longer who will protect whom,or who will love whom, but who will stand idle and this time face the true wrath of the eternal G-d.

    • I don’t completely follow, but “Jewishness” is a matter of birth (or proper conversion) – and is not based on observing “religious custom.”

  3. Dear rabbi,

    You say you would like Hareidi Jews to join the workforce. Well, well, are they permitted to join the workforce?

    The answer is, not until they turn 28. They may not even join as a Torah teacher. For a prerequisite to legally joining the workforce is army service.

    If you feel that they should be joining the army, that’s a separate issue, and should be treated as such by the honest.

    How about a post just on this issue, alone?

    • Any prohibitions are self-imposed. Why couldn’t they work? Rambam (Hilchot Deot 5:11) writes that a person should first get a job, get a house and then marry. That is the order of “baalei Deah,” sensible people. They handicap themselves, and ignore the Rambam, by doing the reverse.

  4. Most of the views the Rabbi expresses about the “sharing of the burden” are very well made and are much appreciated
    It seems, however, that the Rabbi unfairly and almost spitefully trivializes the efforts of the Rabbonim in the Yeshivish/Chasidish velt to combat “the rampant decadence in society” (extremely mildly put)
    Memory of Haskoloh, I’m sure, is still fresh and as such sends shivers down the spines of the Roshei Yeshiva and other Gdolei Yisroel who are trying their best to prevent another Haskoloh-like destruction.
    While corruption and the use of tax-payer funds for unintended purposes un-doubtfully exists in the religious circles, Israeli-type democracy with a strong taste of socialism provides an extremely fertile ground for that and it is just as widespread in the chiloni circles as well.
    Finally, not sure that the Rabbi should be pointing out the lack of observance of the Hilchos Loshon hoRo as he compares a Jewish neighborhood full of mitzvah-observant Yidden (albeit uneducated in “the works halachic or philosophical – of anyone outside their camp”) to a G-d denying vicious, and torturous regime of the “Red China”.

    • G-d forbid, I’m not comparing the denizens of Hareid neighborhoods to Red China – only their methods of dissemination of information, which are quaint.
      To the broader point, historical memory can inform but it can also paralyze. The effects of the haskala were real, and so was the heresy of Shabtai Zvi. Both events played a prominent role in the early rejection of Zionism. But should they still today? Of course not. Failure to adjust one’s hashkafot (or political conclusions) to the times leaves one living in the past. Living in the past has recreated the poverty of Eastern Europe, re-born as a virtue, and left many Haredim ill-equipped to live in the broader world.
      That is a problem not for “them,” but for “us,” all Jews.


      • Doesn’t the Rabbi think that any such “hashkofo adjustment to the times” should only be initiated under the auspices of Gdoley Yisroel as opposed to every Chaim-Yankle that “feels that the time has come”?

  5. I would like to complement the Rabbi on another well written piece, while at the same time illustrating a number of flaws.
    As pointed out by a previous commenter, any comparison to dictatorships is an extreme attempt at illustrating what is perhaps a valid point. As someone who works alongside doctors from China, Iran, and a number of other “free” countries (and hears countless stories firsthand of life back “home”), I challenge your apparent knowledge of how countries of that cut disseminate information. Furthermore, although you respond above that you are only drawing comparisons in one aspect of the matter, perhaps you would be best to leave that sentence out of your opening paragraph as it indicates an undertone of contempt for Haredi Jewry (Example: You, my dear Rabbi, are just like the Taliban. You both pray a lot— Can you understand why that is offensive?).
    As for your implication that Haredi Jewry is redefining Amalek from an external absolute enemy to an internal vague enemy who somehow aught to be responsible for our good as well (BTW job well done of illistrating the difference between the two and the dilemma presented by the second definition), perhaps you are unaware that this is not a new definition. Difficult to comprehend? Yes. New? Absolutely not. One example out of hundreds can be found in the writings of R’ Elchonan Wasserman HY”D, found in Kobetz Maamarim Chelek Aleph, in the section titled “Omer Ani Maaseh L’Melech”. In his writing he quotes the Chafetz Chaim (R’ Wasserman was the primary student of the Chafetz Chaim) in defining contemporary Amalek as “evil leaders of the Jewish people”, “Yesvektzia”, and “erev Rav”. Without getting too historical, it should suffice to illustarate that the Yesvektzia and Erev Rav were both very much Jewish, and very much internal threats. Whether or not you feel that the current leaders of Israel are an actual threat to Judaisme (obviously, I am sure you do not feel that way), it is difficult to accuse the the Haredim of completely redefining what and who Amalek represents and can be. Misapplying a concept that has been around for centuries, perhaps, but redefining? you will have to go much further back before you fling out that accusation.
    On a final note, I would like to draw your attention to a poll whose results can be found online (http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3725082,00.html). To quote one line from there: “According to the study, 66% of seculars think that the media coverage of the haredi sector is unfair and unbalanced, and effectively contributes to fueling tensions between the different sectors in Israeli society”. I saw elsewhere, covered by the same poll, that most secular Israeli Jews had personal interactions with Haredim that actively contradicted the media portrayal of Haredim.
    I strongly believe that only a fool would shout that Haredi Jews are free of blame, but only a bigger fool would hold politicians from any sector of Israeli society as an indication of that societies values and feelings (Israeli politics being notoriously corrupt). But the biggest foolishness of all, is to use the actions of a few, and the posters of even fewer, to condemn a large segment of Israeli society.
    Have a great Shabbos.

    • Again, the Red China reference was merely that societies that eschew – for one reason or another – modern conveniences often communicate in what are perceived as relatively primitive ways. I have always found such notices funny, to guard against my crying over them; the number of sins for which one has to forfeit one’s life seems to increase every week, if you read those carefully.
      I agree with the balance of what you wrote. The rhetoric of Rav Elchanan hy”d was at times over the top. In that regard, his successors (at least in terminology, but not in Torah) were at work again this week, calling the new government the “axis of evil,” Lavan Ha’Arami (initials L B N – Lapid, Bennett, Netanyahu), calling Naftali Bennett the new one rising to destroy us in this generation (borrowed from Vehi She’amda), etc. – all because people are suggesting that it is incompatible with Torah and Musar to live on the dole for one’s whole life, or a good portion of it.
      In truth, I blame the leadership more than the people, which is not easy, because the leadership sincerely want to increase Torah study. The way they go about has produced a distortion of the Torah ideal, not an affirmation of it.

  6. Moderator,
    In reviewing my comment I realize that my use of the word “fool” and “foolishness” in the last paragraph could be construed as disrespect directed towards Rabbi Pruzansky. This was not my intention in the slightest and I would ask, if at all possible to remove the word fool and foolish and replace with “it would be an error to shout that Haredi…” “and an even bigger error to assume politicians from…..”, “and it would be the biggest error of all…….” .

    Thank you for your time,

  7. Stewart Schwartz

    When I first realized, years ago, that I felt I had more in common with religious Christians than secular/reform/conservative American Jews, it was both sad and epiphanous. In my case, I believe it comes from the resentment I feel toward my own kind who deny G-d and/or feel little for Israel and Her people, as displayed in their embrace of “Obama’s America”.

  8. Religious Christians are indeed pro-Israel and G_d-oriented, but they NEVER STOP trying to convert us Jews to their religion by any means possible, including deception and brainwashing and targeting Jews-in-crisis.

  9. Phil Slepian

    I think Yair Lapid’s statement during the election was very important. To paraphrase, he said that, in the early days of the State, the secular leaders were content to indulge the Hareidim and allow them to live off the state and learn full time. This was not based on respect as much as it was on expedience. The thinking was that the children of these Hareidim would quickly be enticed to assimilate into the new paradigm of the secular, modern, socialist Israeli. The assumption was that in a generation or two, the Hareidim would be a quaint memory; the problem would take care of itself. But, Lapid says, the Hareidim won. The not only survived and resisted assimilation, they have thrived and grown. Now, with that victory, comes responsibility. Responsibility to build the stae, defend it, and generally to contribute to it, not just take from it. Amazing sentiments from a solidly secular Israeli, born to left-leaning parents.

    A note to Mr. Cohen: Yes, the American Christian supporters of Israel usually do have in mind bringing us their “good news”. That doesn’t bother me. I am secure enough in my Torah faith that no missionary can ever break through my protective bubble of Torah. I have raised my children to be the same way. Even if, God forbid, they chose a non-Torah lifestyle, I am quite confident they would never embrace another faith. Yes, they prey on the weak, but to them, that is a “mitzvah”. It is our job to make sure non of our holy brothers and sisters are “in crisis” or in any way abandoned by the Torah-observant community. It is not easy to go where you’re not wanted, but if we don’t, the vacuum will be filled by missionaries of other faiths.